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[Editorial] Wrangling over first lady

President Yoon’s veto sets stage for extended clash between rival parties

By Korea Herald

Published : Jan. 9, 2024 - 05:30

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South Korea’s two main parties are expected to wrangle over two special investigation bills that were vetoed by President Yoon Suk Yeol on Friday. Unlike three previous vetoes exercised by the president, the latest set is likely to fuel political wrangling in a way that could impact the results of parliamentary elections in April.

Under the Constitution, Yoon can exercise his veto rights within 15 days after the National Assembly sends a bill to the government. In the previous cases, he had spent some time before choosing to veto them, a formal gesture of collecting public opinions about the issue.

In contrast, the two independent counsel bills -- one of which is concerned about the alleged stock manipulation by first lady Kim Keon Hee -- were handled immediately on Friday. The Democratic Party of Korea, teaming up with the minority opposition Justice Party, pushed the bill through the National Assembly late last month. The ruling People Power Party boycotted the vote.

The two bills are said to have a host of problematic aspects. The ruling party slammed the bills as the Democratic Party’s thinly veiled attempt to undermine the image of the Yoon administration ahead of April’s general election. Some critics take issue with the clause that allows the opposition party to recommend a special counsel, which could raise a fairness dispute.

One of the special probe bills involves first lady Kim, who is alleged to have been involved in the manipulation of the stock price of Deutsch Motors, the BMW car dealer in Korea, between 2009 and 2012. The prosecutors during the previous Moon Jae-in administration investigated the case for about two years, but failed to prove Kim’s wrongdoing.

The other probe proposal concerns the “5 billion club,” where six people were promised 5 billion won ($3.8 million) each from a company involved in the corruption-ridden development scandal in Daejang-dong of Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province.

Despite the possible flaws, however, the public apparently did not want Yoon to exercise his veto. Recent polls showed that 60 to 70 percent of respondents replied that Yoon should not veto the bills.

This reflects deep suspicions about past investigations conducted by prosecutors involving first lady Kim, who has continued to generate negative public reactions. She was accused of improperly taking a high-end designer bag from a pastor in September last year, according to Voice of Seoul, a YouTube-based news channel, which released a video recording of the scene.

The alleged gift-taking of a pricey handbag would not be the first time for Kim to be involved in a dispute. Kim apologized for lying about her academic and career credentials and suffered other negative rumors that did not fit the status of a first lady.

Observers have repeatedly pointed out that Kim is a liability for Yoon, even before the presidential election. Now Kim is again at the center of a political tug-of-war that shows no sign of abating in connection with the election.

The Democratic Party is seeking to delay the scheduling of the revote of the two special investigation bills, where it would take a two-thirds majority to overturn the vetoes. It is considering filing for an adjudication with the Constitutional Court, asking the court to decide whether Yoon’s veto infringes on the power of the legislature.

Unsurprisingly, the main opposition party’s move has come under attack by the ruling party. Critics claim it is self-contradictory for the Democratic Party to use delay tactics after having used fast-track procedures to railroad the two bills.

The People Power Party also criticized the move on the revote as a bid to extend negative sentiment involving Yoon and Kim, possibly looking toward parliamentary elections in April.

If Yoon wants to help the ruling party’s election odds, he has to ponder the result of his latest decision: Realmeter surveys released Monday showed that his public support edged down 1.5 percentage points from a week earlier to 35.7 percent, with those in their 20s and 30s in particular expressing strong disappointment in the vetoes.