The Korea Herald


Opposition refutes 'extravagant' India trip claims about ex-first lady

By Son Ji-hyoung

Published : June 7, 2024 - 17:57

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This photo shows Rep. Youn Kun-young (right) of the Democratic Party of Korea speaking at the National Assembly on Friday. (Yonhap) This photo shows Rep. Youn Kun-young (right) of the Democratic Party of Korea speaking at the National Assembly on Friday. (Yonhap)

Opposition party lawmakers on Friday played down a controversy that has recently resurfaced over ruling party claims surrounding former first lady Kim Jung-sook's official visit to India in November 2018, of her allegedly "extravagant" airline meals, visit to the Taj Mahal and eligibility to represent the South Korean delegation at the time.

The lawmakers added that those stirring up such "unfounded and malicious distortions," including the ruling People Power Party's lawmakers, will face legal consequences, declaring the conservatives' moves as an attempt to "sabotage the relationship between South Korea and India" built during the former liberal administration.

At a press conference held Friday at the National Assembly in Seoul, former Culture Minister Do Jong-hwan and Democratic Party of Korea Reps. Ko Min-jung and Youn Kun-young gathered to refute claims that the South Korean delegation joined by former first lady Kim, wife of liberal former President Moon Jae-in, had spent 62.92 million won ($46,040) on flight meals on the Air Force One during the four days of the trip.

Citing data obtained from the airline operator, Youn said that only 21.67 million won was spent on meals for the 36 people in the delegation, and that all of Kim's in-flight meals cost about 1 million won if combined.

The cost of the ingredients, cooking labor, transportation and storage of the meals accounted for the remaining 41.25 million won, Youn said.

“We are planning to file complaints against lawmakers who spread groundless libel,” Youn said. “I think (this dispute) cannot sabotage the relationship between South Korea and India. … This political attack must stop immediately if (the ruling party) takes national interest seriously.”

The press conference was in response to Rep. Bae Hyun-jin's claim on Monday that government data her office obtained showed every meal cost nearly 1.5 million on average for 36 people in Kim's delegation during the four-day trip.

The trip in November 2018 was meant to celebrate the opening of the Memorial of Princess Suriratna, also known as Korean Queen Heo Hwang-ok, in Ayodhya of Uttar Pradesh, India. The Memorial was built to commemorate the India-born woman who moved to the Korean Peninsula by boat and married King Suro of Geumgwan Gaya city-state in the late 2nd century. The delegation was also invited to attend Diwali, or the festival of lights in India.

Also, Bae's revelation showed that Kim did not actually lead the delegation, and instead then-Culture Minister Do did. Bae claimed that this contradicts Moon's writings in his memoir published in May that Kim's visit can be seen as the first case in South Korea where a first lady was on a diplomatic mission without a head of state.

About questions the ruling party has raised over whether Kim was actually invited to join the trip to Uttar Pradesh, Do, who had led the delegation, told reporters that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had sent a letter inviting Kim specifically to the opening ceremony of the Queen Heo Memorial in October 2018, as South Korea had already been internally contemplating the plan to respond to Modi's request for a high-level delegation. Do received a separate invitation letter from Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath to lead the delegation.

Moon, whom India had initially invited for a high-level delegation in July 2018 during a visit to India, was unable to attend. Both Moon and Kim went to India in July 2018.

People Power Party Rep. Bae claimed that the delegation was meant to be led by a minister with a 25 million won budget, but the moment Kim joined the delegation as a "special delegation member," the cost for the visit jumped to 400 million won.

As to whether Kim's trip to the Taj Mahal was improvised or scheduled, Ko said the nature of any diplomatic itinerary is that they may easily be subject to change.

Bae, in response to the opposition lawmakers' press conference, claimed they were spreading a "lie."

In South Korea, this controversy concerning the preceding president's spouse has reemerged in the media amid the ongoing controversy surrounding the current president's spouse.

In the previous 21st National Assembly, the Democratic Party, which holds the majority of seats, passed a bill boycotted by the ruling party to mandate a special investigation of President Yoon Suk Yeol's wife, Kim Keon Hee, over allegations that she violated the country's antigraft law by accepting a luxury Christian Dior bag worth 3 million won. Yoon vetoed the bill immediately.

Bae's claim, however, gives the ruling party the momentum to strike back at their political opponents. Following the revelation Monday, Rep. Yoon Sang-hyun, a six-term lawmaker of the People Power Party, said he would float a bill to launch a special counsel probe into the controversy surrounding former first lady Kim Jung-sook's India trip.