The woman pulling Yoon Suk-yeol’s strings

Posted on : 2024-01-18 17:05 KST Modified on : 2024-01-18 17:19 KST
Before Yoon was elected president, his wife vowed to stick to her role as a wife and not be involved with her husband’s governance — that turned out to be a lie
President Yoon Suk-yeol speaks to first lady Kim Keon-hee at the opening ceremony of the Korean National Sports Festival held in Mokpo, South Jeolla Province, in October 2023. (Yonhap)
President Yoon Suk-yeol speaks to first lady Kim Keon-hee at the opening ceremony of the Korean National Sports Festival held in Mokpo, South Jeolla Province, in October 2023. (Yonhap)

“What is more painful and embarrassing for me is that my own child’s name is being mentioned in connection with this affair. Whatever the truth may be, it is deeply embarrassing for me that these rumors are circulating at all. Like all fathers in the world, I too feel that the mistakes of the son are the mistakes of the father. If I did not teach him to be cautious in all things and to conduct himself properly, that is a failure on my part. If there is any part of this for which my child is to bear responsibility, I will obviously ensure that he assumes his due legal responsibility. While I am president, I will ensure that the public is not troubled by this again by suspending all of his social activities and confining him to the home while keeping him away from myself. I once again apologize to the people of South Korea.”
Even Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung troubled by family issues

On Feb. 25, 1997, then-South Korean President Kim Young-sam addressed the public on the fourth anniversary of his taking office. At the time, South Korea was being rocked by an incident involving corruption and preferential treatment in loans to Hanbo Steel.

At the time, it was strongly alleged that Kim’s second son, Hyun-chul, was behind the incident.

Kim summoned his son to grill him about the affair. The younger Kim insisted he was innocent. Yet the president ordered then-Prosecutor General Kim Gi-su to investigate him anyway.

On Feb. 21, 1997, Kim Hyun-chul presented himself to prosecutors for an interrogation that lasted throughout the night. He was then sent home without any charges being pressed.

Kim Young-sam would later write in his memoirs about the emotional experience.

“Being the president of a country came ahead of being the father of a son,” he said. “From the beginning, I ordered that the Hanbo situation should be investigated in a way that treated nothing as sacred and left no questions unanswered. Even if Hyun-chul was my son, he could not be an exception to that.”

Even then, Kim also sought to soothe the public’s anger by sharing an apology on the fourth anniversary of his administration. The part of the statement in which he said that “the mistakes of the son are the mistakes of the father” stands out in particular. South Korea’s top leader used the familiar word “abi” to mean “father” — a word commonly used by ordinary people but seldom used in formal settings. As a politician, Kim Young-sam had a healthy fear of public opinion.

But not long afterward, allegations were raised that Kim Hyun-chul had been meddling in the affairs of the state. The president’s son was ultimately taken into custody in May 1997 on charges of dodging taxes and taking bribes for political favors, which are both violations of the Act on the Aggravated Punishment of Specific Crimes.

Kim Dae-jung, who served as Korea’s president after Kim Young-sam, underwent something similar. In the spring of 2002, Kim Dae-jung’s second son, Kim Hong-eop, and his third son, Kim Hong-geol, were implicated in corruption charges.

The president sent his personal secretary, Kim Han-jeong, to visit Hong-geol in the US and figure out what had happened. Then he told his son to quickly return to Korea to face an investigation by the prosecutors. Hong-geol returned to Korea on May 16 and was taken into custody two days later. Hong-eop was also detained on June 21. That very afternoon, Kim Dae-jung released a public apology and statement.

“Over the past few months, I’ve felt a keen responsibility for not raising my children properly. I’ve continued to feel shame and remorse for upsetting the Koreans who have given me their support. While I’ve suffered many difficulties in my life, I never imagined I would face something as terrible as this. This is all due to my own shortcomings and failings. Once again, I want to say how sorry I am,” the president said in the statement.

During his time in office, Kim made sure that Hong-geol and Hong-eop never stepped foot inside the Blue House. In his memoirs, he offered a fatherly defense of his sons. He claimed that the public prosecutors, who felt sure that power would change hands in the next presidential election, had taken aim at what they saw as a lame-duck president and had coerced a friend of Hong-eop’s to provide false testimony, enabling them to put the president’s son in detention.

Following Korea’s democratization, presidents learn to apologize promptly

As this suggests, past presidents’ family members have often been their Achilles’ heel. Seeing how much heat US President Joe Biden has taken over his son Hunter Biden, “family risk” may well be an inherent factor of the presidential system. It’s a system, after all, that by design gives an inordinate amount of power to a single person.

There was also no shortage of allegations of corruption by close family members and more distant relatives during the dictatorships of Syngman Rhee, Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan, but those allegations were usually suppressed by the authorities, keeping the truth under wraps. But since Korea’s democratization in 1987, presidents have been unable to hide family issues.

Presidents have apologized to the public as soon as allegations of corruption have been raised and have ensured that the implicated individuals have submitted to an investigation either by the senior secretariat of civic affairs or by the public prosecutors.

Former President Roh Moo-hyun apologized following allegations that his older brother Roh Gun-pyeong had engaged in real estate speculation. Former President Lee Myung-bak made an apology of his own after his older brother and former lawmaker Lee Sang-deuk was detained on charges of violating the Political Funds Act. And former President Park Geun-hye apologized several times during the scandal over Choi Soon-sil, who was a close confidante of the president, if not actually a blood relation.


Kim Keon-hee, the wife of then-PPP presidential candidate Yoon Suk-yeol, reads a statement on Dec. 26, 2021, in which she responds to allegations that she padded her resume. (Yonhap)
Kim Keon-hee, the wife of then-PPP presidential candidate Yoon Suk-yeol, reads a statement on Dec. 26, 2021, in which she responds to allegations that she padded her resume. (Yonhap)

Nevertheless, President Yoon Suk-yeol has consistently remained silent even while first lady Kim Keon-hee has been accused of all kinds of inappropriate behavior and his own mother-in-law has been taken into custody. His reticence is curious and truly hard to understand.

The first lady has been the center of several scandals since before the presidential election in connection with her peculiar behavior and her inflation of her academic record.

A recording and transcript of her conversation with the Voice of Seoul circulated online in January 2022, but her blunt candor ended up being received positively and even viewed by some with admiration.

Kim Sun-duk, a veteran reporter with the Dong-a Ilbo, quoted some of Kim’s remarks in a column printed on Sept. 25, 2022.

“My husband is pretty dumb. He’s a total klutz — he couldn’t get anything done without me to look after him,” she said.

“As dumb as [my husband] may be, I keep him around because he listens to me. Who else would put up with somebody like him? It’s not like he’s good-looking or strong, and he’s got a belly, snores at night, eats like a pig and is always passing gas. Do you think you could put up with that?”

Kim did apologize for padding her resume in a press conference on Dec. 26, 2021, and promised to “stick to [her] role as wife even if [her] husband becomes president.”

Kim made that promise of her own volition, without anyone’s prompting. It was a lie, though. Since Yoon became president, she has enthusiastically taken on the role of first lady.

The story doesn’t end there. There’s considerable evidence of Kim inserting herself into the government’s personnel decisions. She has brought personal acquaintances to public events. Photographs of Kim shopping for luxury goods in Lithuania ran in the local press.

In November 2022, video footage showed Kim waving at Yoon to move forward during a welcome dinner at the G20 summit in Indonesia. While her voice couldn’t be discerned in the footage, she seemed to be saying, “Go on up,” or “Move it.” At any rate, the video clearly showed her cavalier treatment of her husband, the president.

Is a no-holds-barred investigation even possible?

One reason there’s so much public support for a special prosecutor to be assigned to Kim Keon-hee is that the allegations against her — including manipulating stock prices at Deutsch Motors and accepting a designer bag in a likely violation of a graft law — have substance to them. But it’s probably safe to say that another major reason is Kim’s uncouth behavior has tanked her likeability.

What to do about the first lady?

Lee Ha-kyung, a veteran reporter at the Joongang Ilbo, wrote a column in the Jan. 8 edition of the paper titled “No government can defeat popular sentiment.” In the column, he offered the following suggestion to Yoon.

“Now’s the time to make a decision even bolder than what the public demands. Setting up a personal secretariat to manage your wife was a good decision, but that’s not enough. You need to appoint a special auditor as you promised during your presidential campaign to thoroughly and completely investigate the allegations surrounding your wife, such as shopping for luxury goods on an official trip overseas, accepting a designer bag, swaying public appointments, and altering the route of a planned expressway between Seoul and Yangpyeong,” Lee wrote.

“If problems come to light, your wife should be disciplined to set an example for all, and you should apologize to the nation and take appropriate action. And while you’re at it, you ought to make a full disclosure about whom you and your wife have met and when you met them. That should dispel all the rumors that have been circulating.”

I think Lee’s prescription is correct. In regard to the Deutsch Motors allegations, the prosecutors need to bring their investigation to a swift conclusion.

The economy is in trouble, and the Korean Peninsula faces an escalating crisis. In this situation, Koreans can’t afford to be distracted by the first lady’s indiscretions.

If Yoon keeps trying to quash the allegations about his wife and sweep them under the rug, public anger could rise up like a tsunami and sweep away not only the first lady but even the president himself. Yoon needs to get a reality check.

Cover of “First Ladies of Korea” by Cho Eun-hee. 
Cover of “First Ladies of Korea” by Cho Eun-hee. 

I’ll wrap things up here. In the preface to her 2007 book “Korea’s First Ladies,” People Power Party lawmaker Cho Eun-hee writes the following: 

“The first ladies of the Republic of Korea have accompanied the country’s highest leaders as companions into the heart of power throughout Korea’s turbulent modern history and have been put in the dazzling spotlight. While they have played a major role as conveyors of public opinion as it stands, connecting the isolated president at the apex of power to the real world, first ladies have also been prisoners, locked up in the prison of the public’s perceptions.”

“For that reason, first ladies wield influence on the overall affairs of the state that far exceeds what many people imagine,” Cho goes on. “While a president may govern a nation, it is the first lady who governs the president.”

When I first read this passage, I thought it was using metaphorical language to underscore the critical role that first ladies play. But in the case of Yoon and Kim, I should perhaps read it more literally. While President Yoon may govern the nation, maybe it really is first lady Kim Keon-hee who governs Yoon. It’s a curious situation. What, reader, do you think should be done about it?

By Seong Han-yong, senior political writer

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