June 16, 2022
SEOUL – President Yoon Suk-yeol’s wife, Kim Keon-hee, has begun official activities, and so have the controversies.
Kim, who has been targeted by the opposition since Yoon first entered politics, came under renewed attack after paying tribute to late President Roh Moo-hyun while being accompanied by acquaintances, prompting speculations that Yoon may revive the office in charge of first lady affairs that he removed.
When Kim visited Roh’s grave in Bongha Village, South Gyeongsang Province, on Monday, controversy grew online over her the people who accompanied her.
One of them is said to be a close friend of Kim. Another two were former employees of Covana Contents, the art exhibition company founded and operated by Kim, and were recently hired by the presidential office.
Her friend was covered by the official security of the Presidential Security Service, and went through a background check.
Photos of Kim’s visit had gone viral, with some online even claiming that her “close friend” was a shaman. The presidential office on Tuesday denied the claims, saying the woman in question is a professor of dance at Chungnam National University. As an adjunct teacher, her profile is not posted on the university website.
The Democratic Party condemned Kim’s choice of entourage to the official event, and raised concerns of a repeat of the scandal caused by former President Park Geun-hye’s confidante, Choi Soon-sil, who had interfered with government policy and important state affairs.
In a written statement Tuesday, party spokesperson Cho Oh-seop called for a clear answer to explain why Kim’s friend had accompanied the first lady and what her role was.
The president stated that the woman who accompanied Kim is “an old friend” of his wife’s.
“When she went to meet with Kwon Yang-sook (late Roh’s wife), she brought some bread, and the bread was heavy so she accompanied (Kim),” Yoon said Wednesday. “Bonghwa Village is a place anyone can go,” he added.
Kim’s recent moves contrast with the low profile she kept throughout the presidential campaign.
She was embroiled in various allegations, including that she lied about her educational background and career in job interviews, and was accused of being involved in a stock price manipulation scheme. She has apologized in public and said she would only “assist” Yoon behind the scenes.
When Yoon was elected in December last year, he said, “I have always thought that the office of the second secretary to the president of Cheong Wa Dae (which is in charge of the first lady) is unnecessary.”
He vowed not to have an organization dedicated to the president’s spouse. He also said he would not use the term “first lady,” though his officials have used it since he was elected and two of her staff have been hired by the presidential office.
Kim’s fan club makes noise
Kim’s fan club “Keonhee Sarang” has also stirred controversy.
Lawyer Kang Shin-up, 58, head of the fan club, was criticized for releasing private photos of Kim and using abusive language at a political critic who had rebuked him. The presidential office and Kim, who dismissed the issues, only fanned the flames further.
He reportedly receives photos taken by Kim and communicates with her directly through text messages.
Kang has released a number of photos of Kim through her fan club since Yoon took office. This raised concerns that pictures and messages of the president’s spouse, who is a public figure, are being sent through private channels.
Kang, who recently conducted a membership fundraising activity on his Facebook for his new group, drew ire after he used a swear word in responding to a critic that expressed concern. On the same day, he posted a lengthy rebuttal on social media against People Power Party leader Lee Jun-seok who had criticized him on the radio.
Revival of second office?
Some have called for a public organization to be created to handle the first lady’s affairs as she gears up for public activities.
Regarding the fan club photos, Lee Jun-seok suggested releasing them through public channels rather than a private fan club.
“Of course, the president’s departure from authority is important, but in the end, the first lady’s move is sometimes helpful to national prestige through independent actions, such as what Kim Jung-sook (the spouse of former President Moon Jae-in) did,” he said.
When asked whether he would revive the second office, Yoon told reporters on Wednesday morning, “It’s not long since I started (as president). I will think about this gradually, listening to public opinion.”
When it was pointed out that the Covana Contents employees had been hired by the presidential office, Yoon argued that she is unable to go around alone and doesn’t have any official secretarial support.