Still from President Yoon Suk-yeol’s interview with KBS on Feb. 7, in which he addressed the recent controversy over a luxury bag given to his wife. (KBS/Yonhap)
A conversation with President Yoon Suk-yeol broadcast by the KBS network on Wednesday included no apology for first lady Kim Keon-hee’s receipt of a luxury handbag.
In his first direct comments on the controversy more than two months after it erupted in the wake of a late November report by the YouTube channel Voice of Seoul, Yoon reiterated the presidential office and ruling People Power Party’s stance that the gift was a “political operation” involving a “hidden camera in a watch.”
In his remarks, he focused on explaining that Kim had been placed in a situation where she could not refuse the gift. This position appears unlikely to fully quiet the controversy surrounding the first lady.
In a program entitled “Special Conversation: Visiting the Presidential Office” aired at 10 pm on Wednesday, anchor Park Jeong-beom asked Yoon, “How did something like this happen with the first lady?”
In his response, Yoon blamed the lack of adequate security and search procedures.
“This happened before we moved into the official residence in Yongsan [in September 2022],” he said. “My wife’s office was located on the basement level of an apartment building in the Seocho neighborhood, and they couldn’t install a [security] checkpoint there because it would have caused a lot of inconvenience for residents.” Kim’s office here referred to her venture Covana Contents, an exhibition company.
When it came to the individual who captured the footage, a Korean American pastor named Choi Jae-young, Yoon went on to explain, “My wife’s father passed away when she was in middle school, and visited her, talking about he was from her father’s hometown and knew him.”
“It’s difficult to be rude to anyone when you’re a president, or a president’s wife,” he continued, appealing for understanding from the audience.
But rather than apologizing or expressing dismay, he focused on the “unfortunate aspects” of the situation.
“There may have been some issues in terms of not being harsher about breaking things off when he said he would visit her often. I do think it was a bit unfortunate,” the president said.
At the same time, he stressed that he had “faced similar situations” himself.
“If it were me, I would have responded more firmly, but I think my wife felt she couldn’t really refuse because of various circumstances,” he said in defense of Kim. “Anyway, there were some unfortunate aspects.”
Still from footage taken of Kim Keon-hee, the wife of President Yoon Suk-yeol, receiving a luxury bag from a Korean American pastor named Choi Jae-young on Sept. 13, 2022. (still from Voice of Seoul video)
His explanation showed some disconnect from the current trends in public opinion, with falling approval ratings and demands for Kim to apologize and give a statement on the matter herself.
As if to reflect that climate, Yoon said, “The public might wish for her to explain in detail by herself, but there are certain negative situations that could arise.”
“The important thing is to draw lines more clearly and firmly when necessary, going forward so that this kind of thing does not happen,” he added.
In contrast, Yoon responded with a more militant position when asked whether he felt that Kim was the “victim of a political operation.”
“The very fact that they brought this out a year after the fact, just ahead of an election, is a political operation,” he asserted.
“Not only are things like this managed appropriately now that we are at the official residence, but I should also explain about these things more clearly so that the public does not misunderstand things or feel anxious or worried,” he said.
When asked whether he had quarreled with his wife, Yoon said, “Not at all.”
Regarding suggestions about establishing an “office of the first lady” to manage Kim’s activities and introducing a special inspector system, he offered only generalities, saying only that the former was “under examination by the secretariat” and the latter is something that must be “adopted and sent to presidential office by the National Assembly.”
But he made no secret of his opposition, adding, “I don’t really think [either of them] would be very helpful in preventing this sort of thing.”
“I see [a special inspector] as someone who conducts after-the-fact inspections when there has been some form of corruption or issue, not someone who’s capable of preventing things,” he said.
“If they can’t really do anything to stop someone from basically bargaining in and promising to ‘visit often’ because my wife can’t throw him out, she would be obliged to meet with him even if we had an ‘office of the first lady,’” he explained.
Yoon also spoke about the National Assembly’s passage last month of the so-called “Kim Keon-hee Act,” a special law — which Kim had vocally called for — ending the raising, slaughtering, and distribution of dogs for consumption purposes.
“I think it might be time for us to change some things a bit now,” he said.
When asked whether he also discussed other issues with Kim, he answered, “I tend to talk about a lot of different things with my wife.”
By Bae Ji-hyun, staff reporter; Shin Min-jung, staff reporter; Kim Ji-eun, staff reporter
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