[Column] A taste of Joseon’s factional politics in the controversy over Korean first lady’s texts

Posted on : 2024-07-09 18:01 KST Modified on : 2024-07-09 18:01 KST
Korea only needs to look back to the Joseon era to remember that fighting over the affairs of a sovereign’s wife can plunge the nation into chaos
President Yoon Suk-yeol and first lady Kim Keon-hee take part in a ceremony commemorating the 74th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War on June 25, 2024, in Daegu. (courtesy of the presidential office) 
President Yoon Suk-yeol and first lady Kim Keon-hee take part in a ceremony commemorating the 74th anniversary of the outbreak of the Korean War on June 25, 2024, in Daegu. (courtesy of the presidential office) 

By Kim Young-hee, executive editor

It’s not only President Yoon Suk-yeol who defies our imagination. First lady Kim Keon-hee sent a text to former People Power Party (PPP) leader Han Dong-hoon, who is now running for formal party leadership, back in January. The text expressed her willingness to apologize to the public for accepting a luxury handbag from a pastor. Since being made public, the text has led to a continuous feud within the ruling camp. That is the current status of the PPP.  

Kim Gyu-wan, the editorial director at CBS, was the person who made the reconstructed text public. The text reveals a first lady who is quite courteous. It was a far cry from the image portrayed in the Voice of Seoul’s expose, which included a recording of Kim’s phone conversation with a reporter. The recording depicted a brash first lady saying, “I’ll tell Dong-hoon to pass it on.” The text also provided a stark contrast to the verbose Kim Keon-hee seen in the hidden camera footage released by Choi Jae-young, the pastor who gave her the handbag.

In the text, she refers to Han by his official title, using all the proper honorifics. She expresses remorse for her deeds and explains why she is hesitant about issuing a public apology. However, she clarifies that she will do whatever it takes to get back in the party’s good graces. The reconstructed text that was made public allows the reader to know exactly what the first lady tried to communicate. If her goal was to put the ball entirely in Han’s court, it’s a commendable text, worthy of high marks.  

It remains to be seen how this text will impact Han’s campaign to lead the PPP. Similar reports had already come out in January. But Han’s handling of the revelations has helped elevate the PPP’s internal power grab into a political vendetta. 

Han has offered differing explanations for why he read the first lady’s text without responding. First, he claimed it was because of the need to distinguish between public and private matters. Then, he claimed that what Kim Gyu-wan published was different from what the text actually said. After that, Han remarked that he remembered the text concerning why the first lady was reluctant to offer an apology. When KBS broadcast its interview with Yoon in February, Han claimed that he had communicated his opinion on the need for the first lady’s apology to the presidential office. 

“The presidential office vehemently opposed my viewpoint, and even called for my resignation,” Han said. 

Although it was obvious that calls for Han’s resignation were because of his position on the first lady and not because of Han’s support for Kim Kyung-yul, who compared the first lady to Marie Antoinette, nobody had said that part out loud. Han’s statements, however, proved everybody’s suspicions correct. 

Honestly, I’m not sure if the Korean people need to hear every little detail about the argument over what the first lady’s text really said in real time. Regardless of what went down between Kim Keon-hee and Han Dong-hoon, the first lady ultimately did not issue a public apology for her acceptance of the luxury handbag. Both the first couple and Han saw an apology as no more than a variable that could play positively or negatively in the midterms. Neither party paused to think about how dispirited, how insulted, the Korean people felt to be denied an explanation or apology. But the bickering hasn’t been completely meaningless, as it’s inadvertently allowed certain issues to resurface. 
As if we were thrown back to the Yesong Controversy of the Joseon period, Koreans of the 21st were reminded that internal squabbles over the proper conduct of the wife of the country’s sovereign are still very relevant. The PPP’s image of being behind the times has now been carved even deeper into the public memory. Whether it’s referring to a Dior handbag as a “small pouch” or attempts to prevent using Kim Keon-hee’s name in the bill that would assign a special counsel to her case, the public was already sick of the administration’s authoritarian attitude, reminiscent of the country’s dictatorship days. 

The Yesong Controversy refers to disagreements between political factions about how long Queen Jangryeol, the stepmother to the recently deceased King Hyojong, should don her funeral garments. The debate was primarily concerned with which Confucian traditions to follow, as Hyojong was not the queen’s biological son. The rival Western and Southern factions, as they were called, exploited the issue to throw themselves into a power feud. The overall consensus among historians is that the feud led to a breakdown in political cooperation that plunged the Joseon dynasty into chaos. 

Even Yoon supporters who were willing to turn a blind eye to the handbag incident cannot ignore recent revelations pointing to the first lady, an unelected person, engaging in lobbying and inserting herself into the governance of the country. Choi Jae-young’s hidden camera footage shows the first lady expressing her ambitions regarding inter-Korean unification. The first lady had already caused heads to tilt by inviting a known far-right YouTuber to Yoon’s presidential inauguration. Bringing personal acquaintances to state events and privately contacting major party and administration figures, however, is an entirely different matter. 

When the first lady went into hiding amid the handbag controversy and allegations of stock manipulation, it turns out she still kept in contact with major political operatives and influential figures via texts and phone calls. In the past, Han Dong-hoon and the first lady were so close that they sent each other over 300 KakaoTalk messages in the span of three months. In light of such revelations, do they really expect the Korean people to believe that Han never kept in contact with the first lady when he was the justice minister? 

In the end, it’s impossible for us outsiders to know what the first lady really said in her texts, and what she truly hoped to achieve through them. By interfering with party affairs such as the PPP convention, however, Kim Keon-hee has opened a new chapter in South Korea’s political history. Every time we are treated to photos of her posing in Cambodia, in a Daegu market, in front of the tombstone of a child abused to death, I can’t help but wonder if she fancies herself to be some kind of Eva Perón. Perón was the first lady of Argentina from 1946 to 1952. She was in the public spotlight much more than her husband, President Juan Perón, and was even dubbed the "spiritual leader" of Argentina. Known affectionately as “Evita,” her historical legacy remains controversial. 

Every time Kim Keon-hee appears in public, we are showered with paparazzi articles about the hoodie she wears or the bags she carries, and how the same items sell out after she dons them. When Kim offers photos of herself taken in the presidential office to the president of her personal fan club, the fan club posts those images to enjoy boosts in membership. The first lady is confident enough to make bold statements about the lack of need for an office of a secretary to the first lady or an independent inspector general. Perhaps the press is partially responsible for feeding her ego.  

A schism among the conservatives is, in the end, a power struggle of their own making. The problem occurs, however, when such feuds keep repeating themselves or spread to greater state affairs — as in the Yesong Controversy — and swallow the entire political dialogue. With the urgent issues our country faces at present, we cannot afford to spend the next three years arguing about the first lady. Kim needs to take accountability and clearly state her case before public prosecutors. That is, if what she said in her text is the truth.

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

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