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Lee Jae-myung's wife under fire for 'gapjil'

Civil servant allegedly ordered to fetch groceries and pills for Lee’s wife

Kim Hye-kyung, the wife of presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung, attends the Jan. 12 opening ceremony of the Daegu branch of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea`s election campaign committee. (Yonhap)
Kim Hye-kyung, the wife of presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung, attends the Jan. 12 opening ceremony of the Daegu branch of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea`s election campaign committee. (Yonhap)
The wife of presidential nominee Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea is under fire for possibly abusing her status while her husband served in his gubernatorial post, prior to announcing his presidential bid.

Lee's wife, Kim Hye-kyung, has faced allegations of having made indirect orders for a Gyeonggi Provincial Government official to deliver food and fetch prescribed medicine for herself while her husband served as the governor for the province until October 2021.

Local media outlets recently reported that an unnamed official assigned to the head of the policy office under the provincial government was made to handle private matters of Lee’s family members from March to October 2021.

The source reported that members of the policy office shopped for groceries for Lee’s family with the corporate card issued for the governor’s office under the orders of Bae So-hyeon, a former official with the Gyeonggi Provincial Government who was superior to the source in rank and power.

The allegation included the source having hormone pills prescribed for her to then give to Kim, who allegedly did not want to leave behind related medical records. The list of orders also included making the payment and processing discharge procedures for Lee's son at a hospital after treatment.

The source alleged most of her daily tasks consisted of running errands for Kim and her private matters.

Under guidelines issued by the Ministry of the Interior and Safety in 2016, the spouses of local government chiefs ought not be provided assistance on private affairs with the budget or aid of assigned civil servants. No human resources should be assigned for such matters as well, it states.

If the claims are true, the orders could also be a direct violation of the Code of Conduct for Public Officials, which states that "a public official shall not accept, solicit or promise to receive private labor from duty-related persons."

Former provincial official Bae immediately denied the allegations, saying she never made any orders to those in the provincial government to assist Kim with private matters. The Democratic Party also denied all allegations made against Kim, saying she has never issued any orders to provincial government staff members.

Yet the source on Sunday revealed a recording of a phone conversation with Bae prior to revealing the allegations, which entailed Bae apologizing for the matter and wanting to meet the source in person.

Bae walked back from her earlier remarks Wednesday by acknowledging to have made orders to the source for the period in question through a statement to reporters delivered from Lee’s campaign team. But Bae emphasized she only issued the orders to try to impress Lee and his wife, as opposed to having relayed their direct orders.

"It is only recently that I looked back on what I demanded from (the source) in an objective perspective; I gave orders to (the source) on behalf of no one," Bae said in the statement.

"I wrongfully thought that having known candidate Lee for a long time was a privilege in itself, so I made unreasonable requests (to provincial government staff members) to impress candidate Lee and his wife."

Bae added the hormone pills were in fact for herself, claiming she was secretly taking them after being distressed from difficulties in getting pregnant.

Flip-flopping from the earlier strong denial of all allegations, Lee and his wife apologized for failing to draw a line between public and private life, yet they remained firm that they never made any orders to provincial government workers for private matters.

"I should have drawn a clear distinction between public and private matters, but I received help from Bae based on my acquaintance with her," Kim said in a statement Wednesday evening. "Yet I do emphasize that I did not receive this assistance on a regular basis."

Lee also apologized in a statement Thursday, saying he had failed to closely monitor the alleged wrongful acts against staff members and that he will take responsibility for any violations found in the ongoing investigation led by the Gyeonggi Nambu Provincial Policy Agency.

"Some media outlets raised questions on suspected misuse of corporate cards issued for the Gyeonggi Provincial Government," the statement reads.

"I ask inspecting agencies to thoroughly unveil any misuse of corporate cards during the time I served as the governor, including what has already been reported. If any problems are found, I will assume responsibility as stated by regulations."

The investigation started with the main opposition People Power Party filing a complaint on the issue after the allegations were first raised in a news report on Jan. 28.

The party heavily denounced the case and responses from Lee and his aides, arguing they are attempting to cloud the core of the controversy by denying any direct involvement and using subordinates as scapegoats.

It called for Lee and the provincial government to reveal details of Bae’s work records, including her time cards and evaluation reports. The country would be in deep trouble if hypocrites like Lee and his wife take the presidency and rule the country, the party opined.

"We need to question who the person was to give out the corporate card for candidate Lee to the civil servant in question while allowing the problematic orders," said Kim Byung-min, a spokesperson for the campaign team of Yoon Suk-yeol, presidential nominee of the People Power Party.

"Candidate Lee Jae-myung’s own card was used to discharge his son from a hospital, but can we still say the couple wasn't aware of the illegal orders made to civil servants?"

The "wife risk" has been a key issue in the ongoing presidential race, with spouses of both the main candidates enduring criticism for their past and current behaviors. The risk was widely seen on Yoon’s side for weeks until the latest revelation concerning Kim took place.

The tide has shifted in favor of the People Power Party, which for weeks was embroiled in controversy in regards to Yoon’s wife, Kim Keon-hee, after the content of seven hours of phone conversations between her and a journalist were leaked last month.

The leaked phone conversations drew criticism of Kim Keon-hee, who was recorded making inappropriate remarks in regard to her role in the election campaign, drawing questions on her moral standing and personal philosophies.

Kim Keon-hee was also in hot water earlier for allegations that she falsified credentials on her resume when applying for teaching jobs in the past. The Seoul Metropolitan Policy Agency has been investigating allegations of false credentials since late December.

The latest controversy on Kim Hye-kyung could undermine Lee’s standing in the race, which has shifted again with Yoon’s seemingly fruitful campaign moves. Lee's support in polls has remained largely unchanged despite rigorous campaign efforts and continued announcements of reform measures.

A Hankook Research poll of 1,000 adults conducted from Thursday to Saturday last week found Yoon in the lead with 37.8 percent, followed by Lee with 33.2 percent. When asked to pick who is most likely to win, 46.1 percent of respondents picked Yoon, while 39.8 percent chose Lee.

For more information regarding the survey results, visit the National Election Survey Deliberation Commission homepage.

By Ko Jun-tae (ko.juntae@heraldcorp.com)
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