[Column] The president’s fears and anxieties, tucked away in a ‘small pouch’

Posted on : 2024-02-15 17:13 KST Modified on : 2024-02-15 17:13 KST
The air of self-assurance Yoon is putting on is but a bluff to hide his fears and insecurities
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)
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)

By Park Chan-su, editor at large

President Yoon Suk-yeol regards the first lady’s luxury bag scandal as an unfounded farce that’s been blown out of proportion.
There is no other explanation for how he brushed off the matter by stating, “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. I have also faced similar situations myself.”

He didn’t even try to come up with a perfunctory apology along the lines of, “No matter what the circumstances, I am sorry to have caused the public concern.”
Have we ever had a president, the most powerful person in the country, respond so recklessly to allegations of corruption within their family, aside from military dictators?
A prime example of another unfounded event blown out of proportion is the “furgate” scandal that blew up during the Kim Dae-jung administration.
The case was incredibly bizarre. In his autobiography, former Kim wrote, “A wife of a certain chairperson was detained, and she was soon suspected of having bribed the wives of high-ranking officials, including the wife of the then-minister of justice, with clothing in order to save face for her husband.”
The case prompted the introduction of the special counsel system. National Assembly hearings on the affair were even broadcast live to the nation.
Despite the parliamentary hearings and the special counsel’s investigation, the only real revelation to come out of the case was the birth name of fashion designer André Kim.
If a special counsel were to investigate and hold hearings about the current first lady’s luxury bag scandal, would the outcome be any different? Could Yoon really think that’s the case? It’s difficult to tell. His refusal to issue a public apology, with all its political implications, reads as an instinctive act of self-defense, characteristic of a former prosecutor.
Kim Dae-jung allowed a special counsel investigation, even though he thought the case was bizarre, in order to clear up any suspicions harbored by the Korean public.
Yoon will never allow any sort of investigation or probe into the allegations surrounding his wife. Just like the vain emperor in Hans Christian Anderson’s folktale who donned invisible clothes, the public is privy to the truth, and only the presidential couple remains in the confines of their sandcastle of arrogance.
When the clothing lobby scandal was at its peak, Kim traveled to Mongolia. Despite his aides urging him to not speak to the media because of the controversy, he held a local press conference.
While Kim would’ve wanted to highlight his diplomatic achievements, the press conference went down an all-too-familiar route: “What measures will you take against Minister of Justice Kim Tae-jung?” “If the investigation clears him, does that mean you will not remove him from office?” “Many have been critical of Kim Tae-jung’s appointment as minister of justice…”
The former president had to face three consecutive questions about the furgate scandal. Nowadays we seldom see reporters ask such a barrage of hard-hitting questions. Perhaps this can be attributed to the specific president; perhaps the media has gone soft. 
Despite being subject to that, Kim did not shy away from meeting reporters at the arrival gate upon touching down in Seoul. Once again, he was bombarded with questions about the scandal.
The president, evidently exasperated, expressed what he was truly thinking: “I apologize for causing the public concern about the issues involving family members of those in leadership positions. We will get to the bottom of this, but what we cannot do is allow for a witch hunt.”
Kim had to later apologize again for the “witch hunt” remark after backlash from the public.
Yoon is surely thinking that the luxury bag scandal is a “witch hunt” targeting his innocent wife. He probably refrained from holding a New Year’s press conference because he didn’t see the point of taking heat from the media, which he sees as a pitchfork-wielding mob. 
But there’s one thing that Yoon still hasn’t realized. Former presidents have considered the responses to alleged abuse of power scandals as unreasonable “witch hunts,” but they still apologized to the public for causing concern and demonstrated a willingness to bring the truth to light.
Yoon has not been following his predecessors’ examples. This air of self-assurance he’s putting on is but a bluff to hide his fears and insecurities.
There is a huge difference between a president who does not avoid meeting the media, even under strenuous circumstances, and a president who picks and chooses which broadcaster he wants to talk to one-on-one in a pre-recorded and edited interview.
Not shying away from the issue of the day and not being afraid of being asked difficult questions is an aspect of a president’s character that is likely to be reflected in the way they make policies and lead the country.
Presidents are not only referred to as “commanders-in-chief” due to their role in commanding armed forces. In times of crisis, people trust the president when they demonstrate their courage and confidence through actions, not words.
In his interview with KBS, we saw how the current president responds to an abuse of power scandal. Whether it was supposed to be a defense of his wife or an apology to the public, the problem lies in the fact that Yoon did not look the public in the eye, and instead merely leaned on a pre-recorded broadcast that was already three days old.
The public broadcaster sugarcoated what the luxury bag stood for by referring to it as simply a “pouch.” The ruling party has donned the colors of a martyr, saying that they will happily march onward, Kim Keon-hee’s legal troubles be damned.
The presidential office is lionizing their leader as “frank” for brushing off the advice of his advisors. With toadies like these, the president will continue to waltz down the streets as if nothing is wrong, not realizing that he’s stark naked. 

How long must we be subject to this spectacle?

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

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