Yoon apologizes for wife’s ‘unwise conduct’

May 9, 2024

President Yoon Suk Yeol apologized Thursday for what he called the “unwise conduct” of first lady Kim Keon Hee, referring to allegations she illegally accepted a luxury bag in 2022.

It was his clearest expression of regret yet since video emerged online last year appearing to show the first lady accepting a Christian Dior handbag, valued at around 3 million won (US$2,200), from a Korean American pastor armed with a hidden camera.

“I apologize for causing concern to the people with the unwise conduct of my wife,” Yoon said during a press conference marking the second anniversary of his presidency, which falls on Friday.

He said he would refrain from commenting further, however, given that a prosecution investigation is already under way into the allegations and his remarks could be misconstrued as trying to influence the probe.

The handbag scandal has been a headache for the Yoon administration for months. It featured prominently in the political discourse ahead of the April 10 parliamentary elections, and though Yoon spoke to the issue in an interview with KBS TV in February — claiming the problem was that his wife was “unable to cold-heartedly reject” the pastor — the ruling People Power Party was routed in the elections, leaving the National Assembly under the control of the main opposition Democratic Party.

President Yoon Suk Yeol answers reporters' questions during a press conference marking the second anniversary of his presidency at the presidential office in Seoul on May 9, 2024. (Yonhap)

President Yoon Suk Yeol answers reporters’ questions during a press conference marking the second anniversary of his presidency at the presidential office in Seoul on May 9, 2024. (Yonhap)

“I think the people’s assessment of my running of state affairs until now was that it was greatly lacking,” Yoon said during the press conference, referring to the election outcome.

“I think from now on, what’s important is ultimately the economy. And while structural things, such as the growth of businesses and job creation, are important, I think it’s important to actively find and solve the difficulties and inconveniences felt by each and every person in the field of people’s livelihoods,” he said.

On the opposition’s calls for a special counsel investigation into separate allegations the first lady was involved in stock price manipulation, Yoon said such investigations should come only after those of the prosecution and other agencies are deemed insufficient.

Calling for another investigation when enough has been done is a “political offensive,” he said.

Yoon expressed a similar position on the opposition’s push to appoint a special counsel to investigate the military’s response to a Marine’s death last year, saying if the ongoing investigation by the police and the Corruption Investigation Office For High-ranking Officials is insufficient, he “will be the first to call for a special counsel probe.”

On why he appointed former Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup as ambassador to Australia, when Lee was under a travel ban in connection with the Marine’s case, Yoon said not even the government knows about who is under a travel ban, as such details of an investigation are confidential.

Yoon fielded questions on a wide range of economic, social and foreign policy issues as well.

When asked to respond to the possibility the United States will ask South Korea to pay more for the stationing of 28,500 American troops on the peninsula under a potential second Donald Trump presidency, Yoon said it would be inappropriate to answer based on a hypothesis.

“What’s clear is that there is strong support for the South Korea-U.S. alliance from across the public and private sectors in the U.S., both parties, the Senate, the House, and the executive branch, and I am certain the firm alliance between South Korea and the U.S. will not change,” he said. “If we tackle issues based on that, I believe we will be able to smoothly resolve various negotiations and problems.”

On Ukraine, Yoon said South Korea is doing its best to provide humanitarian and reconstruction aid to the war-torn country but stands by its policy of not providing offensive, lethal weapons to any nation.

He added that South Korea is in an “uncomfortable” relationship with Russia due to its war in Ukraine and purchase of North Korean weapons, but aims to cooperate with Moscow in the economy and other areas where there is a common interest.

On Japan, he acknowledged differences in opinion between the two countries on their shared history. Still, he stressed the need for cooperation for the sake of their future generations.

Other topics he addressed during the press conference included the government’s plans to further support the semiconductor industry, complete a pension system reform plan before the end of his term and employ all possible means to tame inflation, especially in the groceries and dining sectors.

In addition, he vowed to continue to persuade doctors to accept the government’s decision to increase admissions to medical schools to address the country’s shortage of doctors.

The press conference was Yoon’s first since August 2022 and was seen as a demonstration of his commitment to improving his communication style in the wake of the recent election defeat.

Before entering the presidential office briefing room, Yoon gave an address to the nation from his office to reflect on the first two years of his term and present a plan for the remaining three years.

In the address, he said he will create a new ministry to tackle the country’s low birth rate.

“In order to overcome the low birth rate, which can be considered a national emergency, we will fully mobilize all of the state’s capabilities,” he said.

The head of the new ministry, tentatively named the “low birth response planning ministry,” will double as the deputy prime minister for social affairs and draw up policies across the education, labor and welfare sectors that will become the national agenda, he said.

Yoon requested the active cooperation of the opposition-controlled National Assembly in revising the government organization law to enable the launch of the new ministry.

He further pledged to raise the basic monthly pension for senior citizens to the 400,000 won level from the current 330,000 won within his term.