Uncovered phone recordings of wife of PPP candidate stir controversy

Posted on : 2022-01-17 18:52 KST Modified on : 2022-01-17 18:52 KST
The wife of conservative presidential contender Yoon Suk-yeol complained of “amateurism” within her husband’s party
Kim Keon-hee, People Power Party presidential nominee Yoon Suk-yeol’s spouse, can be seen speaking in this undated photo. (pool photo)
Kim Keon-hee, People Power Party presidential nominee Yoon Suk-yeol’s spouse, can be seen speaking in this undated photo. (pool photo)

Recordings of phone conversations have shown People Power Party (PPP) presidential candidate Yoon Suk-yeol’s wife, Kim Keon-hee, making remarks that suggest she actively involved herself in various aspects of her husband's campaign, such as recruitment and strategic planning.

She also didn’t hesitate to make vindictive comments about media critical of her and her husband while assuming Yoon’s rise to the presidency during the 52 phone conversations she had with Lee, a reporter for the YouTube channel Voice of Seoul, over a period of six months ending in December of last year. A court decision on Friday allowed for the partial airing of the recordings of these phone conversations by broadcaster MBC.

According to recordings obtained by the Hankyoreh on Sunday, Kim criticized the PPP as “amateurs” and repeatedly told Lee from July to September of last year that she wanted to recruit him to her husband’s campaign, where he would “have to do what [Kim] say[s].”

Kim said to Lee, “The campaign is a mess, so it needs reorganizing [. . .] People in the campaign are still amateurs and also impolite” (July 21, 2021), asking Lee during their early conversations to take charge of “tidying up the campaign” and “campaign organization.”

In one of her proposals, she asked Lee to give lectures on systematization and organization to key campaign officials, saying, “There are people who move [the campaign]. For example, there’s [my] brother and a few others. When they give directions, everyone organizes the campaign.”

Later on, Kim asked Lee to handle “information affairs” for the campaign, for which he would “secretly obtain information like the National Intelligence Service used to do,” going so far as to propose that he serve as head of the PPP’s campaign strategy committee on Sept. 19, 2021.

The recordings showed Kim making similar job offers to Lee over 20 times with specific mention of compensation as well: “If things work out, [we] can pay 100 million won,” she said. MBC’s current affairs show “Straight” reported that Lee indeed received 1.05 million won for giving a special lecture at Covana Contents operated by Kim.

Whether Kim’s remarks carried any weight is difficult to judge. However, September of last year, when Kim made many of her job offers to Lee as Yoon vied for the party’s nomination against rival Hong Joon-pyo, was a time when Yoon’s campaign went through important personnel changes.

At the time, Lawmaker Chang Je-won, a key campaign figure, resigned from his campaign role after his son was charged for driving under the influence without a license and assaulting a police officer. Afterward, lawmaker Kweon Seong-dong was newly named head of party affairs support headquarters for Yoon’s campaign. Other key positions were filled as well.

Of course, Kim never held an official position in Yoon’s campaign — neither then nor now. Nevertheless, it’s safe to assume that as Yoon’s spouse, Kim exerted her influence in diverse campaign issues such as recruitment, scheduling and strategy. The recordings of Kim’s phone conversations also indicate the possibility that her older brother wielded covert influence within Yoon’s campaign.

The reason behind Kim’s active disclosure of her position seems in big part to be Kim’s distrust of the PPP. This goes hand in hand with Yoon’s previous comment that he “inevitably” chose the People Power Party.

During her phone conversation with Lee on July 21, 2021, Kim said, “The People Power Party is not a good party and is too amateurish [. . .] Like a fool, [the PPP] won’t back up [Yoon], even when the product of [prosecutor general that Yoon offers] is good.”

She also said, “I don’t care about the No. 1 spot — we need to revamp the campaign. That’s what I’m talking about [. . .] Beyond just being amateurish, the campaign is ruining everything.”

Kim also expressed her negative views on lawmaker Hong Joon-pyo, who previously vied for the presidential nominee spot for the PPP against Yoon, and ex-lawmaker Yoo Seong-min. On Sept. 3, 2021, right after allegations of political meddling were made against Yoon, Kim said during a phone conversation with Lee, “My husband didn’t commit [political meddling] but Yoo Seong-min’s side and Hong Joon-pyo’s side are engaging in political maneuvering.”

The attitudes Kim revealed while assuming her husband’s rise to power during her phone conversations with Lee tend to betray views that run counter to the democratic system. Especially noteworthy are her views on the press, particularly as they pertain to online media that have been critical of Yoon and Kim, expressed through remarks that can be interpreted as intimidation.

However, the court barred the direct coverage of such remarks by Kim it categorized as “statements that express dissatisfaction with media companies.” Meanwhile, Kim said to Lee on July 21, 2021, “[We are] not insignificant. We now have a force that protects us. Not to mention that we are currently No. 1 in polls. No. 1. Messing with us will get one into trouble.”

As to why Yoon decided to run for the presidency, Kim emphasized that Yoon was “dragged into” the race. During a phone conversation that took place on Oct. 13, 2021, she said, “We were dragged into [the presidential race] so quickly, we didn’t even have time to regret [. . .] We couldn’t not run, as [Yoon] polled at 30% even when he was still prosecutor general.”

Nevertheless, Kim also expressed the view that presidents are not made by approval ratings alone, saying, “The presidential election is determined by the zeitgeist [. . .] Just because a media company unearths corruption — for example, just because [my mother’s] corruption is unearthed — doesn’t mean [a presidential nominee] is unmade.”

In her written reply to “Straight” on Sunday, Kim wrote, “I didn’t interfere in the political career of presidential nominee Yoon Suk-yeol, nor did I meddle in his campaign affairs.” She also added, “My remarks that I would look into job openings within [Yoon’s] campaign were made to show that I would help Lee in principle as he said he would be quitting his job.”

In regard to the value of broadcasting these cumulative seven hours of conversations the court said on Friday, “[Kim Keon-hee] is a public figure, and her views on social issues and political views fall under that relevant to the public interest,” citing part of Kim’s injunction against MBC to stop the airing of recordings of her phone conversations with Lee.

Following the decision, the Hankyoreh obtained these recordings and decided to report its findings on a limited basis with the court’s decision as its preliminary criteria for reportage, excluding contents of private conversations from coverage while focusing on remarks that are relevant to voters’ right to be informed.

By Kim Wan, Jang Na-rye and Jang Pill-su, staff reporters

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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