[Column] A wife-doting president and a first lady who’s off limits

Posted on : 2024-01-26 17:31 KST Modified on : 2024-01-26 17:31 KST
All this drama has merely exposed the Achilles’ heel of those in power
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and first lady Kim Keon-hee disembark from the presidential jet after arriving in Korea on Nov. 26 following a state visit to France. (Yonhap)
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol and first lady Kim Keon-hee disembark from the presidential jet after arriving in Korea on Nov. 26 following a state visit to France. (Yonhap)

By Hwang Joon-bum, politics editor

Oh what a whirlwind these last three days have been.
Despite the two’s relationship going back two decades, it took less than a month for Yoon Suk-yeol and Han Dong-hoon to butt heads in their respective positions as head of the government and head of the ruling party, retracting all previous statements about how much they trusted and supported one another.
The unbelievable happened, with the president asking that the interim party leader step down for refusing to penalize a member of the party’s emergency leadership committee who called for first lady Kim Keon-hee to apologize over a scandal revolving around her acceptance of a luxury handbag.
Then there’s the fact that it only took two days for them to seemingly reconcile.
The situation has been hard to wrap my head around, so I’ve had to ask several officials from the ruling party to make sure that it wasn’t some sort of staged gag between the two.
The answers I received were simple: “You’re asking that since you don’t know Yoon at all,” and, “There’s no need to wrack your brain trying to understand the situation.”
The situation itself is simple: The first lady was miffed at the fact that the ruling party was pointing a spotlight on her scandals. When Han declined to listen to Yoon after the president gave him a warning, the threats became more and more serious. However, when people around them told them that this may cost them the general election, the two decided to let bygones be bygones.
It really was as straightforward as what the entire nation saw happen in real time.
At the first meeting of the emergency leadership committee on Dec. 29, 2023, Han urged party members to “not resort to politics of palace intrigue or behave like actors in a period drama by conniving to split existing party allegiances in order to create new factions.” 
Despite his warnings, events that would seem unbelievable in a period drama have been playing out within the ruling party.
This is all so utterly embarrassing; it’d be less humiliating if this had all been a show intended to demonstrate that there are boundaries even to party sympathies and in order to strengthen Han’s position within the party in order to win the general election in April.
As of now, there are no winners. All this drama has merely exposed the Achilles’ heel of those in power.

Let’s start with President Yoon Suk-yeol. He’s lost all of his existing credibility and popularity. Gone is his “the people are always right” mantra he adopted after the PPP lost the by-election for the mayorship of Gangseo District in October 2023.
Despite the fact that the public has turned its back on the first lady, dogged as she is by scandals like the current luxury handbag case, Yoon is refusing to let the ruling party make a case based on public opinion.
Protecting the first lady, who was reportedly quite shocked after hearing herself being compared to Marie Antoinette, is the president’s one and only priority. Everyone in Yongsan knows only too well how much Yoon dotes on the first lady.

His aloof attitude and his proclivity for spontaneity have been proven and emphasized by the way he can install and bring down party leaders at will, from Lee Jun-seok and Kim Gi-hyeon to Han Dong-hoon.
Yoon’s influence within the ruling party has starkly diminished, as can be seen in the way that his attempt to unsettle Han was not supported by other lawmakers in the party.
Then there’s interim party leader Han Dong-hoon. While he hasn’t bowed out yet, he sure doesn’t have much to show for himself.
He’s never stated publicly that the first lady should apologize or that Yoon should step up and give an explanation when it comes to the luxury handbag scandal. Barely had he uttered the phrases, “hidden camera sting” and “public’s perspective” when he was told to resign.
Did he call for a strict probe on the suspicion of extortion in the circumstances surrounding the investigation of the death of a Marine corporal last year? Did he publicly state that the presidential office should not intervene in party nominations for the election?

It’s no wonder he feels he’s been thrown under the bus. 

To make matters worse, it’s been revealed that he doesn’t even have an easy working relationship with the president.
His clumsiness regarding his public endorsement of emergency committee member Kim Kyung-yul’s candidacy, which happened before he could even start to think about a fair nomination process that would guarantee the party’s win in the upcoming election, has given Yongsan something to nitpick about.
If he cannot stand for his own principles and will spinelessly defer to higher-ups, he will fail to expand the party’s influence, rendering his appointment as interim party leader useless.
Finally, we have first lady Kim Keon-hee. She’s made it apparent that she is untouchable, better than everyone else. Her expression of feeling hurt by Han and Kim Kyung-yul, morphed into anger on Yoon’s part. The pinch hitter who’d been sent in to hit a home run for the ruling camp whiffed. 
The ruling party has always made exceptions when it came to issues surrounding the first lady. When questions were raised about the alteration to the course of a proposed expressway connecting Seoul and Yangpyeong in a way that appeared to be to the benefit of the first lady’s family, the then-minister of land, infrastructure and transport, Won Hee-ryong, loudly announced that the project would be scrapped entirely.
A bill to assign a special prosecutor to investigate the first lady for alleged manipulation of Deutsch Motors stock prices, despite having earned widespread support among the public, was adamantly rejected by the president and the ruling party.

Each time there were dubious personnel shakeups last year — director of national security, secretary to the president for protocol, secretary to the president for foreign affairs, for a few — rumors swirled about involvement by Kim. Stripped to its core, this most recent strife between Yoon and Han is about the first lady. 

Have risks posed by a president’s spouse ever had such a bearing on state affairs before? At this rate, we may as well call the general election in April the “Kim Keon-hee election.”

After three days of pandemonium that swung back and forth between political thriller and sappy melodrama with a dash of comedy, we’re left with the uxorious Yoon Suk-yeol. Nothing has been fundamentally fixed, and the ruling camp could come apart at any moment. The fact that two ex-prosecutors with no political experience hold the power to sway the current moment and the future is stark, while the taboo on so much as mentioning Kim Keon-hee has become even stronger within the ruling camp. Now all that’s left is the game with real stakes: nominations for April’s election. 

Just how many times must we be forced to watch the incomprehensible come to pass? Enough of the palace intrigue. It’s time for the ruling camp to face the Korean people — their fellow citizens — and plot a path forward. 

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

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