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Han refuses presidential office's request to resign

Yoon skips public debate Monday; fuels speculation of clash with ruling party's interim leader

By Jung Min-kyung

Published : Jan. 22, 2024 - 14:39

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People Power Party interim Chair Han Dong-hoon attends a welcoming event for new ruling party members at the National Assembly in Seoul on Monday. (Yonhap) People Power Party interim Chair Han Dong-hoon attends a welcoming event for new ruling party members at the National Assembly in Seoul on Monday. (Yonhap)

People Power Party interim Chair Han Dong-hoon said Monday he had rejected the presidential office’s request that he step down from his current leadership position, in a surprising turn of events ahead of April's general election.

“I’m not going to make an assessment on the matter,” Han told a group of reporters, who asked about the resignation request and the office of President Yoon Suk Yeol’s involvement in the ruling party’s affairs as he entered the National Assembly.

“As I have rejected the offer to step down, I cannot discuss the details. I believe my position remains in place until sometime after the election wraps up,” Han added, confirming Sunday’s reports that he received a resignation request from Yoon through presidential chief of staff Lee Kwan-sup.

The request from the presidential office comes as Han had taken a flexible stance on the growing controversy surrounding video footage of first lady Kim Keon Hee accepting a Christian Dior handbag valued at some 3 million won ($2,240) from a pastor. The footage was revealed last year by liberal news outlet Voice of Seoul, which said the footage had been filmed in September 2022, raising suspicions that she had violated anti-graft legislation.

With an election approaching, the footage that surfaced last year, coupled with Kim’s alleged involvement in a stock manipulation scandal, could end up damaging the public sentiment toward the People Power Party to which Yoon belongs.

Last week, Han admitted the luxury bag controversy “could be a matter of public concern,” and that the presidential office could have better handled the issue, speaking to reporters at a party policy event.

“There were several misdeeds in handling the issues,” he explained, but added that the situation was “a planned setup using a spy cam.”

Han also publicly approved the nomination of People Power Party interim leadership committee member Kim Kyung-yul as a candidate to represent the ruling party in the upcoming election recently, which has irked the pro-Yoon faction of the party. Kim compared the first lady to Marie Antoinette, the infamous last queen of France in the 18th century before the French Revolution, and called for either Yoon or his wife to explain the luxury bag scandal in a YouTube interview on Wednesday. He apologized for the comments on Monday.

The interim chairman’s recent moves have surprised critics, who had labeled Han as one of Yoon’s closest aides due to their previous work together as prosecutors.

Meanwhile, Yoon decided not to preside over a public debate early Monday, with an unnamed official from his office citing “symptoms of a common cold” to Yonhap News Agency. The official said the president had a “sore throat” and chose not to attend the debate as it “felt inappropriate to speak in front of the public in such conditions.”

The announcement, merely half an hour before the scheduled kickoff of the debate, fueled speculations that Yoon had backed out after reports of a possible clash between the presidential office and the ruling party chief were released. Yoon led all four previous debate sessions, which focused on improving public economic well-being.

Han's refusal to resign at the request of Yoon's office on Monday prompted divided reactions from the conservative and liberal blocs.

Democratic Party of Korea Chairman Lee Jae-myung lambasted the resignation request as “the most blatant and deepest intervention in the history of parliamentary elections here by a president.” He also warned of legal action against the presidential office, accusing them of excessive intervention in party matters.

Former Prime Minister and ex-Democratic Party Chair Lee Nak-yon criticized the presidential office, calling the Yoon administration “unstable and strange” for its apparent unwillingness to “apologize for the luxury bag scandal” through his account on X, formerly known as Twitter.

Daegu Mayor Hong Joon-pyo, meanwhile, indirectly addressed Han through a warning posted via Facebook, “If you lose the trust of your fellow party members and the people, you lose your party chairman position as well.”

Before becoming mayor, Hong was elected five times as a lawmaker representing the People Power Party and its conservative predecessors.

Lee Jun-seok, the inaugural leader of the recently launched Reform Party, suggested an entirely different theory. He casting doubt on the sincerity of the resignation request, calling it a scripted act to make Han look like he is looking into the allegations surrounding the first lady.

“It’s a pre-arranged plan (between Yoon and Han). A close affiliate of the two whom I cannot name told me that it’s all a pre-arranged duel,” Lee Jun-seok said in a Monday YouTube interview.

Han, a former justice minister, took the role of interim leader of the People Power Party in mid-December last year.