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Kim Keon-hee, wife of South Korean presidential candidate Yoon Suk-yeol. Photo: AFP

South Korea’s political wives see their pasts laid bare as election mudslinging intensifies

  • The wives of Lee Jae-myung and Yoon Suk-yeol have made headlines for alleged financial irregularities, abuse of power and fortunetelling
  • The candidates themselves have been dogged by a series of allegations, leading to the campaign being dubbed an ‘unlikeable election’
South Korea

In South Korea’s presidential election campaign marked by mudslinging, even the would-be first ladies haven’t been spared from personal attacks.

This is in stark contrast to the traditional way in which the wives of male leaders in Asia have tended to stay in the background during election campaigns. Usually, they attract publicity for state visits, ceremonies or charity events.

The wife of the current South Korean President Moon Jae-in has seldom been in the news, just as the wife of former leader Lee Myung-bak – who is still serving his 17-year prison term for corruption – has also remained in the background.

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Park Geun-hye, who succeeded Lee and is Moon’s predecessor, was South Korea’s first female president. She has never married. In December she was released from jail after serving part of a 22-year sentence for corruption and influence-peddling.

It’s a different story for the wives of the two candidates in the election set to take place on March 9, who have consistently made headlines in the past few months for anything from alleged financial irregularities to links with shamanism.

The negativity surrounding the campaign has led some pundits and the local media to dub the campaign an “unlikeable election”, where ruling Democratic Party candidate Lee Jae-myung and Yoon Suk-yeol from the conservative People Power Party are locked in a tight race, with Yoon slightly leading over Lee.

Yoon Suk-yeol, from the People Power Party, showing his hand with the Chinese character for ‘king’.

The latest controversy came last week when Lee apologised for his wife Kim Hye-kyeong’s alleged use of credit cards belonging to the provincial government for personal purchases last year.

Lee was a former governor of South Korea’s most populous Gyeonggi province and Kim has been accused of expecting government employees run errands for her and her family during his tenure.

Lee has asked for an audit into the alleged wrongs and vowed to take legal responsibility should irregularities be confirmed.

“I, my family and associates will think and act more carefully. Once again, I apologise to the people,” he said. But the episode has only fuelled public animosity towards Kim, who was earlier plagued by allegations that she was the owner of a Twitter account that levelled abuse against Lee’s political rivals, including libellous tweets that were in breach of election and defamation laws.

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Lee himself has been dogged by a series of allegations, including accusations that he allowed racketeers to reap enormous profits through a real estate development project when he governed Gyeonggi. It’s been an especially sensitive issue given public distress over runaway house prices, which have doubled in Seoul since 2017. An average flat in the capital, for instance, is estimated to cost around 18 years of South Korea’s median annual household income, up from 11 years in 2017, Reuters reported.

Lee has also been slammed for hurling profanities at his sister-in-law amid a family feud after tape recordings were widely shared online.

His opponent, former prosecutor Yoon has fared no better, losing his initial edge over Lee after his wife, Kim Keon-hee became mired in several public controversies.

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She was accused of exaggerating her academic credentials and career experience to obtain teaching jobs. The couple has also raised eyebrows for heavily relying on advice from fortune-tellers. Yoon appeared in TV debates last year with his left palm inscribed with a Chinese character “wang”, meaning king, in an allegedly superstitious gesture that would help him triumph over his rivals.

His wife Kim’s obsession with fortunetelling came to light when audio recordings from seven hours of phone conversations with a reporter were made public last month.

When the reporter told Kim about a fortune-teller’s advice that the state guest house at the presidential Blue House should be relocated because its current location tends to bring bad luck, Kim agreed and promised to relocate it if Yoon was elected.

South Korean presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung of the Democratic Party. Photo: Xinhua

Kim also said in the same recordings that her clairvoyance abilities were superior to that of any other fortune-tellers’, and that Yoon also has a “psychic streak, which is why the couple tied the knot.

“I am better than most fortune-tellers. I myself can do some fortune telling and I know we are going to the Blue House”, she told the reporter.

She even advised the reporter to study the Chinese astrological concept, The Four Pillars of Destiny or Bazi (eight characters), according to which a person’s destiny or fate can be determined by their birth year, month, day, and hour. Bazi is also used in Japan and Korea.

Analysts said the heightened attention on the wives of the two candidates reflects growing public awareness over the importance of the first lady’s role in influencing the president.

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Choi Jin, head of a Seoul-based think tank, the Institute of Presidential Leadership, said while a politician’s wife was supposed to “stay in the shadow of her husband”, people have now realised the power first ladies can wield, especially in political campaigns and diplomacy.

“Under these circumstances, the need to scrutinise not only the candidates but their wives is being felt deeper than before,” he said.

Public disillusionment towards politics has grown over many years because of corruption under the Lee and Park governments, soaring housing prices and economic difficulties during the pandemic. Politicians and the people close to them are expected to be accountable for their personal lives more than at any other time

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, third right, and his ‘traditional’ wife Kim Jung-sook. Photo: AP

As a result, Choi said, people were not looking at the different policy positions of candidates but were instead “showing keen interest in the other side’s dirty linen”.

Journalism professor Kang Joon-man of the Chonbuk University wrote in a recently published book that the upcoming elections will be about electing the candidate who is less hated.

A survey on Saturday found 50 per cent of respondents said they would never vote for Lee, while 42 per cent pledged not to support Yoon. However, other surveys showed Yoon leading by up to 8 percentage points or level with Lee.

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