Presidential office incredulous at accusations of cronyism

Posted on : 2022-07-08 17:55 KST Modified on : 2022-07-08 17:55 KST
Favoritism, cronyism and nepotism appear to be running themes in the presidency of Yoon Suk-yeol
President Yoon Suk-yeol speaks at fiscal strategy meeting at Chungbuk National University in Cheongju on July 7. (presidential office pool photo)
President Yoon Suk-yeol speaks at fiscal strategy meeting at Chungbuk National University in Cheongju on July 7. (presidential office pool photo)

Reports have surfaced that a relative of President Yoon Suk-yeol is currently working as a senior administrative official in the office of the personal secretary to the president amid controversy that the wife of the secretary to the president for personnel affairs, a personal acquaintance of Yoon and first lady Kim Keon-hee, accompanied Yoon and Kim to the NATO summit in June.

With instances of Yoon and Kim’s acquaintances taking part in the operation of the presidential office coming to light one after another, Yoon is facing criticism that his avowed principles of “fairness and common sense,” which he used to justify his debut in politics, have paled due to his hypocrisy.

According to a Wednesday night report by KBS, Yoon’s sixth cousin on his mother’s side, surnamed Choi, is currently working as a senior administrative official under the personal secretary to the president. An official from the presidential office admitted the fact on Thursday, commenting that “Choi, who previously worked for a conglomerate, has been carrying out various tasks since his participation in forming [Yoon’s camp] for the primary” and that “[Choi] has been assisting the president from the closest distance and is still playing that role currently.”

In regard to criticism that it’s inappropriate for Yoon’s relative to have been hired for public office, the official said that “[the appointment] does not violate the Act on the Prevention of Conflicts of Interest in Public Office created by the National Assembly in any way,” arguing that “if hiring [the president’s] sixth cousin on [his] mother’s side goes against public sentiment, then the matter should be resolved by amending the law.” The official insisted that limitations to hiring family members of the president as stipulated by the Act on the Prevention of Conflicts of Interests in Public Office only apply to the president’s spouse, immediate blood relatives, siblings, and in-laws living together with the president.

“If someone is excluded from [employment] simply because they are [the president’s] distant relative, that would be discriminatory as well,” the official added.

Additionally, when media reports surfaced concerning the wife of the senior secretary to the president for personnel affairs accompanying the president and the first lady to the NATO summit, as well as the fact that Yoon’s cousin is working under the personal secretary to the president, the presidential office directed its employees to sign a written pledge agreeing to the office browsing their call history by Monday. Observers say the presidential office is cracking down on its employees so that the internal goings-on of the office do not get leaked to the media.

There were several earlier instances that suggested that personal connections with Yoon and Kim influenced appointments within the presidential office. The son of a long-time acquaintance of Yoon surnamed Hwang, who reportedly calls Yoon and Kim “uncle” and “little aunt,” respectively, was hired for an administrative role under the presidential secretary for national integration, a post itself which reports to the senior secretary to the president for civil and social agenda.

Moreover, the daughter of the current presidential secretary for general affairs, Yoon Jae-Soon — a close associate of Yoon Suk-yeol’s from his years as a prosecutor — carried out legal duties under the presidential transition committee while Yoon Jae-soon was a member of the committee as well. Yoon Jae-soon’s daughter was ultimately not hired to work for the presidential office after the media raised concerns of nepotism regarding her case.

In addition, two former employees of Covana Contents, a company the first lady used to run, were hired to work at the presidential residence under the auspice of the presidential secretary for general affairs, while Kim brought along a personal acquaintance of hers to her official visit to former first lady Kwon Yang-sook last month.

There were definitely instances in the past where those with personal connections with the president were hired to assist the president in his role. However, as the case of Secretary to the President for Personnel Affairs Lee Won-mo’s wife accompanying the president and the first lady to the NATO summit shows, the presidential office has been unable to provide an explanation for the appointment of individuals with private connections to the president in official roles that point to reasons other than their relationship with the president.

The opposition is criticizing Yoon Suk-yeol and Kim for “privatizing the presidential office.” Democratic Party floor leader Park Hong-geun said during a policy coordination meeting on Wednesday, “The more unofficial powers thrive, the more powerless official systems will become, while the national system will turn skeletal due to competitions of blind loyalty for the sake of the powerful as an individual.”

“I will closely question [the Yoon administration] through the National Assembly’s House Steering Committee and through interpellation sessions,” Park added.

Critics also point out that the Yoon administration is going against the principles of “fairness” and “common sense” that the president himself set forth.

Incheon National University political science and international studies professor Lee Jun-han commented, “Continued employment of acquaintances runs counter to the keyword of ‘fairness’ that President Yoon has emphasized. [. . .] Controversies are being magnified because the presidential office is not providing clear explanations.”

Lee added, “If [the presidential office] had clarified its policy or considered reinstalling the post of the personal secretary to the first lady at least when the controversy about the personal acquaintance that accompanied Kim to Bongha Village surfaced, the administration would not have lost its momentum to this degree.”

By Kim Mi-na, staff reporter; Joh Yun-yeong, staff reporter

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