The Korea Herald


What’s all the fuss about first lady?

Controversy surrounding Kim enters center of political arena, even overshadows Yoon’s policy visions, critics say

By Shin Ji-hye

Published : Sept. 4, 2022 - 13:56

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First lady Kim Keon-hee (Yonhap) First lady Kim Keon-hee (Yonhap)

Stock price manipulation, luxury items omitted from personal assets disclosure, inviting a police officer involved in an ongoing investigation to an official event, allegations of plagiarism and calls for further investigations, falsification of credentials, suspicious developments in hiring at and construction contracts for government facilities.

These are just some of the allegations that have been raised in the past few months against first lady Kim Keon-hee, which has prompted the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea to call for the “Kim Keon-hee Prevention Act.”

Four months into a presidency, the controversy over the first lady shows no sign of abating. Issues once relegated as mere gossip have now entered the center of the political arena and sometimes overshadowed the president’s policy activities and visions, raising the need to re-create the office in charge of the first lady’s activities and scandals.

On Friday afternoon, a transcript of a call with Kim, who is under investigation for Deutsche Motors stock price manipulation, came out in local news reports. In the transcript, Kim asked a securities firm employee to buy stock when prices were being manipulated. Kim was also found to have continued to trade in the period during which she claimed to have had no contact with the person who led the stock price manipulation. The presidential office immediately countered, labeling it a false report.

Just a day prior, a luxury necklace worn by Kim while she accompanied Yoon on his trip to Spain in June was stoked controversy after being omitted from a property report. Although the presidential office explained it was borrowed from an acquaintance, complaints were not stifled, with critics saying she is not “honest.” The necklace is appraised at about 62 million won ($45,500).

The same day, another controversy brewed after news reports that a police officer investigating Kim’s family had been invited to attend Yoon’s inauguration. Police have been investigating allegations that Kim and her mother received preferential treatment for a development project in the Gongheung district of Yangpyeong, Gyeonggi Province, for about 10 months.

Also, on Friday, students of Sookmyung Women’s University and Kookmin University’s Alumni Emergency Response Committee opined that their schools should investigate allegations of plagiarism in Kim’s theses at the respective institutions, as the schools have hesitated.

The main opposition Democratic Party said it has reviewed a bill it calls the “Kim Keon-hee Prevention Act" to strengthen punishment for career and credentials falsification at this year’s regular National Assembly.

Those news reports published last week represent only a fraction of the controversies and allegations surrounding Kim, who has continually made headlines since Yoon began his run for the presidency last year.

When Yoon was a presidential candidate in December, Kim held a press briefing to address various allegations. In June this year, after Yoon was the nation’s first president to visit a NATO summit, Kim stole headlines for taking an acquaintance with her. When news of Kim’s travel companion came out on July 6, online searches for her exceeded those for Yoon on the nation’s largest search engine, Naver, according to its data comprehensive keyword research tool Naver Datalab.

“The interest in the first lady in Korea was previously nothing but gossip, but it has now entered the center of the political arena and it is emerging as an important means of attacking the opposing camp,” said Choi Jin, head of the Institute for Presidential Leadership in Seoul.

“The biggest problem is the elimination of the office in charge of first lady affairs,” Choi said. “She is working with her acquaintances and there is no professional expert who could put the brakes on what goes wrong.”

Critics, including Choi, see as necessary the return of what has been called the “second office” charged with first lady affairs, which Yoon abolished after taking office. Because she is a public figure who receives public support such as security and courtesy through taxes, her public activities as spouse of the president needs to be institutionalized, supervised and transparently disclosed, they say.

In a radio interview, political critic Lee Jong-hoon said, "If the second office was in operation, the presidential office could have answered it immediately (about the necklace), and if the opposition party demands it, the data could be released immediately.”

When Yoon was a presidential candidate, he pledged to abolish the second office to reduce the role of the first lady. However, as the first lady has continued to stoke speculations and scandals, he told reporters in June that he would think about re-creating the office by considering public opinion.

Bae Jong-chan, political consultant and president of Insight K, believes the controversy surrounding the first lady could last until the end of Yoon’s term, even if the second office comes back.

“The fundamental reason for the unending controversy lies in Kim herself, who continues to create allegations and does not clearly explain it,” Bae said. “The solution could be for her to actively elucidate all of her suspicions or make no public appearance at all. But it is difficult to expect either.”