How a comment likening S. Korea’s first lady to Marie Antoinette sowed discord in the country’s ruling camp

Posted on : 2024-01-23 17:38 KST Modified on : 2024-01-23 17:38 KST
The incident, which appears to have prompted the president to request PPP interim leader Han Dong-hoon’s resignation, goes to show how influential Kim Keon-hee’s opinion is in the halls of power
President Yoon Suk-yeol of South Korea and first lady Kim Keon-hee go on a stroll near their lodging in Vilnius, Lithuania, where they stayed for the NATO summit in July 2023. (courtesy of the presidential office)
President Yoon Suk-yeol of South Korea and first lady Kim Keon-hee go on a stroll near their lodging in Vilnius, Lithuania, where they stayed for the NATO summit in July 2023. (courtesy of the presidential office)

With South Korea’s general election roughly 70 days away, President Yoon Suk-yeol has demanded that Han Dong-hoon, his hand-picked choice to run the leader-less ruling People Power Party (PPP), resign from his post as interim party leader. The crux of the president’s demand, which has sent the party into turmoil, revolves around first lady Kim Keon-hee. 

The first lady is reported to have been deeply shocked and upset by Kim Kyung-yul, a member of the PPP emergency leadership committee, for his criticism regarding her alleged acceptance of a luxury handbag, and by Han for not intervening in the matter. 

According to some, the first lady, a central figure in various controversies since the presidential election, has through this most recent incident demonstrated her considerable influence, even capable of unsettling Han, a close ally of the president.

A ruling party figure close to Kim Keon-hee mentioned on Monday that the first lady was taken aback by a reference Kim Kyung-yul made to Marie Antoinette in relation to the handbag scandal. 

“The first lady was deeply shocked and hurt by Kim’s comments, which suggested that she should be decapitated like Marie Antoinette,” the figure said. “She said that it was hard to comprehend why Kim Kyung-yul had to make such extreme comments in order to run for a seat in the Mapo B constituency.” 

On Wednesday, Kim Kyung-yul appeared on a YouTube channel and compared the first lady to Marie Antoinette, who was executed via guillotine during the French Revolution. He suggested that “an apology, whether from the president, the first lady, or both, might be a way to soothe the feelings and hearts of the people.” 

That same day, Han had invited Kim Kyung-yul onto the stage at a PPP New Year's personnel meeting in Seoul’s Mapo District. The source close to the first lady added that “she was greatly affected by Kim's remarks, and President Yoon also feels sorry, thinking that his spouse has been demonized because of him.”

Yoon also reportedly felt deeply upset that Kim Kyung-yul and Han brought up the first lady's acceptance of a luxury handbag. The first lady has been out of the public eye for over a month since returning from an official trip to the Netherlands last month, and the presidential office has tried to minimize the fallout by proposing the establishment of a personal secretariat after Yoon exercised his veto power over a bill to assign a special prosecutor to investigate the first lady on Jan. 5. 

“The issue surrounding the first lady had been dying down [until Kim Kyung-yul made his remarks] and could have been addressed after the general election, but the continued highlighting of the issue by the emergency leadership committee upset [President Yoon] a great deal,” the ruling party figure close to the first lady told the Hankyoreh. 

“Despite this, rather than trying to handle the issue, Han seems to have his own agenda,” the figure said as to why Yoon’s support for Han has soured.

A lawmaker allied with Yoon told the Hankyoreh, “After hearing what [Yoon] has had to say over several days, it seems he is greatly disappointed with Han. I think Yoon believes that Han is attempting to pander to the public.” 

Another pro-Yoon lawmaker commented, “Isn’t Han just traveling around [the country], looking after his own interests and his own desires?”

Through this incident, first lady Kim Keon-hee has shown herself to be a key player in the current administration. On Sunday, Lee Kwan-sup, Yoon’s chief of staff, conveyed regret over Kim Kyung-yul's comments while demanding Han's resignation. The first lady’s “hurt feelings” seem to have directly led to the call for Han to step down just a month after taking the position, ahead of the general election, which could determine the fate of Yoon's second half in office. This has also shaken the 20-year bond between Yoon and Han.

Nonetheless, Kim Keon-hee has personally brought herself to the forefront of the general election agenda. The general consensus within the ruling party is that, unlike previous controversies involving the invitation of Kim’s acquaintances to Yoon’s inauguration, a visit paid by Kim to Bongha Village while accompanied by a Covana Contents employee, or the inclusion of private friends as part of Kim’s entourage during a trip overseas, the allegations that she received a luxury handbag as a gift have become impossible to cover up. 

A New Year’s press conference given by Yoon also seems to be directly related to this issue. The Democratic Party of Korea is planning to push for a re-vote on the bill to assign a special prosecutor to investigate the first lady. Hong Ihk-pyo, the party’s floor leader, urged the PPP to support the reconsideration of the bill. 

“The continuous allegations against the first lady since the president’s inauguration are likely to have an adverse effect on the outcome of the general election,” remarked an official from the presidential office. 

By Seo Young-ji, staff reporter; Bae Ji-hyun, staff reporter

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