How a text from the first lady left on read is shaping the race for PPP leadership

Posted on : 2024-07-09 17:59 KST Modified on : 2024-07-09 17:59 KST
During his stint as interim leader of the party in the run-up to the midterm legislative elections, Han Dong-hoon supposedly ignored a text from the first lady
Candidates to lead the ruling People Power Party (from left to right) Han Dong-hoon, Yoon Sang-hyun, Won Hee-ryong and Na Kyung-won, take part in a party event held at the party’s headquarters in Seoul on July 5, 2024. (Yonhap)
Candidates to lead the ruling People Power Party (from left to right) Han Dong-hoon, Yoon Sang-hyun, Won Hee-ryong and Na Kyung-won, take part in a party event held at the party’s headquarters in Seoul on July 5, 2024. (Yonhap)

Han Dong-hoon supposedly leaving Korea’s first lady on read has emerged as the biggest variable in the People Power Party convention and contest to select a new leader.

Han, who is vying to become the ruling party’s leader, is being accused of ignoring messages sent by Kim asking him to consider whether she should make an apology in connection with a controversy over her acceptance of a luxury bag.

Han’s three fellow competitors for the leadership position — Na Kyung-won, Won Hee-ryong and Yoon Sang-kyun — all demanded an apology from Han, arguing that the party’s rout in the past general election was the result of fatal misjudgments on his part.

Various key members of the PPP’s pro-Yoon Suk-yeol wing alleged on Friday that Kim had not received any reply from Han to several messages she had sent him in January regarding a plan to apologize for accepting a luxury handbag as a gift. At the time, Han was acting as the PPP’s interim leader. 

“Kim Keon-hee sent five text messages to Han Dong-hoon in January and received no reply,” said one figure from the pro-Yoon camp, adding that she “also made several phone calls, but [Han] did not answer.”

Another PPP source said, “Kim Keon-hee wrestled with the issue for a while, and rather than telling President Yoon Suk-yeol, she sent text messages to Han Dong-hoon saying that she wanted to apologize to the public and that she would go along with what the party decided, but [Han] completely ignored them.”

In a Thursday radio appearance, CBS commentator Kim Gyu-wan quoted the gist of Kim Keon-hee’s messages to Han, who he said did not reply.

According to Kim Gyu-wan, the first lady wrote in her text messages that she was “sorry for evoking public criticism with the recent controversy over [her] personal issues,” adding that she had “several times meant to apologize to the public but hesitated because of a case during [Yoon’s] presidential candidacy when his approval ratings only fell after an apology.”

He also quoted her as writing that she would “willingly accept whatever measures the party sees as necessary, including an apology to the public.”

He went on to quote her as saying she would comply with a request for an apology and anything more that was asked of her. He added that she wrote, “I will comply with what you decide, so please give the matter some thought.”

Another pro-Yoon wing figure said, “Kim Keon-hee’s reference to ‘complying with anything more that was asked of her’ meant that she would even accept undergoing an investigation, but [Han] did not respond to that.”

In response to the accusations, Han said on Friday that he did “not think it appropriate for the ruling party’s emergency committee leader and first lady to hold public, political discussions in a private manner.”

He also said he had “communicated with the presidential office through official channels during the general elections.”

In an interview with the KBS network said, “The [quoted] text message content is reconstructed. The actual content was essentially her emphasizing this and that reason why she couldn’t apologize.”

In a radio interview with YTN, he said, “This was not a matter where [Kim Keon-hee] would need my permission to apologize.”

He went on to say that the accusations “cannot be read as anything other than an attempt to stir the pot and strike a blow against [him] ahead of the convention.”

Na Kyung-won, Won Hee-ryong and Yoon Sang-hyun, who are Han’s rival candidates for the PPP leadership, unanimously criticized his actions and demanded an apology.

In remarks delivered after a fair contest pledge ceremony at the party’s headquarters in Seoul’s Yeouido neighborhood, Won said, “By ignoring the first lady’s intent to apologize, [Han] missed out on a crucial opportunity to create an inflection point, and that was one of the biggest factors in ruining the election [for the PPP].”

Na accused Han of “making an arbitrary decision on the most important issue in the general elections,” adding that he should “belatedly apologize for a politically immature decision.”

Yoon Sang-hyun said, “This is a pretty abrupt about-face if you consider how there was so much of an issue about [Han] exchanging 332 KakaoTalk messages with Kim Keon-hee when he was a chief prosecutor and she was the prosecutor general’s wife.”

Other observers have commented on the questionable circumstances behind the reporting of the content of Kim’s messages.

In an appearance on SBS radio, former PPP member and current Reform Party member Chun Ha-ram asked, “Who was in a position to make this public? The answer is either Kim Keon-hee or Han Dong-hoon, and I think it was Kim Keon-hee’s camp.”

“This is a case of first lady Kim Keon-hee interfering in the [PPP] convention,” he suggested.

Another questionable aspect — even when Kim’s past closeness with Han is taken into account — is the fact that while she sent her apology request to him as PPP emergency committee leader, she could also have apologized through the presidential office, yet this did not happen.

During a prerecorded interview aired on the KBS network last February, Yoon Suk-yeol apologized for the matter, saying it was an “issue in terms of not being harsher about breaking things off” when the person who gave the first lady the bag said he would visit her often. 

By Son Hyun-soo, staff reporter; Seo Young-ji, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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