[Column] Eligibility to be the “president’s spouse” and the question of vetting

Posted on : 2021-07-01 18:15 KST Modified on : 2021-07-01 18:15 KST
Behavior of first lady hopefuls should be placed under close scrutiny
Graphic provided by jaewoogy.com
Graphic provided by jaewoogy.com

The Korean word for “first lady” — “yeongbuin” — is a term that people are prone to misunderstand. It’s actually a general word used to refer respectfully to another person’s wife. In principle, it could be used for anyone.

These days, however, it seems as though that dictionary meaning is being increasing ignored. The term “yeongbuin” is now taken almost exclusively to refer to the female spouse of a president. News reports on the activities of the president’s wife typically use “yeongbuin” along the same lines as an official title.

Indeed, the president’s spouse very often does accompany the president to summits and other international events. The spouses of different heads of state will also get together to share opinions on issues such as human rights and the climate crisis. Since they are serving as a de facto diplomatic envoy, their travel costs are covered by the state budget.

The Blue House organization also includes a department that exists to support the president’s spouse. It’s called the “Office of the Second Private Secretary.”

Ironically, the first time the Office of the Second Private Secretary became a serious issue was during the presidency of Park Geun-hye, who was not married.

Some had predicted early on that the office would disappear, but it ended up operating under a veil of mystery. Later, it came to light that it was tasked with accompanying Choi Soon-sil (now known by the name Choi Seo-won), a close associate of Park’s. The White House also has an “Office of the First Lady.”

Among the most globally notorious of the presidential spouses since the late 20th century was Imelda Marcos of the Philippines. A former beauty pageant contestant, she lived a life of unbridled luxury at Malacanang Palace with her husband Ferdinand Marcos, who ruled as president for 21 years.

After the People Power Revolution in 1986 sent the couple into exile in Hawaii, some 3,000 pairs of Imelda Marcos’ high-end shoes were found at Malacanang Palace. Returning home after her husband’s death in 1989, she made a successful political comeback — leveraging an estimated US$10 billion in improperly accumulated wealth to win a House of Representatives seat in 2010.

According to the recently released documentary “The Kingmaker,” she now hopes to groom their son, former Senator Bongbong Marcos, into a future president. She often visits orphanages, scattering crisp banknotes all around.

Following former Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl’s announcement that he’s running for president, the issue of ethical scrutiny directed at him and his spouse has come under much discussion.

Yoon’s wife Kim Keon-hee is being investigated by prosecutors over allegations of stock price manipulation and quid pro quo sponsorship arrangements involving her company Covana Contents.

Some also allege that Yoon used his influence in a lawsuit involving Kim and her mother around the time of their marriage. Earlier, there were allegations that a former prosecutor identified by the surname Yang had also been involved.

Since Yoon himself has declared that he’s willing to submit to “unlimited scrutiny,” we need to see a thorough investigation.

By Son Won-je, editorial writer

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

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