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Quarrel over first lady’s text messages opens new rift in ruling bloc

Han Dong-hoon accuses first lady, presidential office of meddling in party affairs with text message leak

Former People Power Party interim leader Han Dong-hoon (Yonhap)
Former People Power Party interim leader Han Dong-hoon (Yonhap)

Rumors that former ruling party interim leader Han Dong-hoon ignored a total of five text messages from first lady Kim Keon Hee have opened a new rift within the conservative bloc, with some questioning the intention behind the alleged texts by the wife of the president, who is expected to remain politically neutral.

The intra-party rift intensified after the Telegram text messages reportedly sent by Kim to former ruling party interim leader and ex-Justice Minister Han, ahead of the April 10 general election, were leaked to the press.

Han has been campaigning to return as People Power Party chair at the party’s national convention later this month.

The messages sent to Han, who was leading the ruling party into the elections at the time, conveyed Kim's offer to deliver a public apology over her alleged illegal acceptance of a luxury Dior handbag, valued at around 3 million won ($2,200), from a Korean American pastor who videotaped the exchange with a hidden camera in September 2022.

Signs of mounting tension have surfaced in the conservative bloc in recent days, with some ruling party lawmakers siding with Han, who is currently one of four candidates running to become the next People Power Party chair, while others criticized the former interim leader.

Supporters of Han claimed that Kim has breached Article 7 of the Constitution, which says that "the status and political impartiality of public officials shall be guaranteed as prescribed by Act."

Ruling party Rep. Cho Jung-hun said that if Han had accepted Kim’s offer to make a public apology, then the results of the April 10 general election, in which the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea secured a majority -- 175 of the 300 seats in the National Assembly -- would have been different, in a radio interview Tuesday.

“If Han had accepted first lady Kim Keon Hee’s offer, it would have led to a very different result for the election. A sincere apology (from Kim) would have earned us at least 20 more seats (on top of the 108 we won),” Cho argued in a Christian Broadcasting Studio interview. Cho’s remarks reflect critics’ claims that Kim’s luxury bag scandal negatively influenced conservative voters’ sentiments ahead of the election.

Ruling party Rep. Kim Gi-hyeon, former chair of the party and a well-known supporter of Yoon, demanded a public apology from Han in a Facebook post uploaded around noon, calling the leaks a disaster to the party ahead of the convention.

The three other candidates, Rep. Na Kyung-won, Rep. Yoon Sang-hyun and former Land Minister Won Hee-ryoung, who are competing against Han for the ruling party leadership, have expressed similar sentiments to Rep. Kim.

Han has so far denied any wrongdoing and described the text messages as an attempt by the first lady and presidential office to meddle in party affairs ahead of its national convention.

Addressing the text message controversy, an official at the presidential office who declined to be named told reporters on Sunday that the office did not and will not intervene at all in the party chair election set to take place at its July 23 convention.

This marks the second time that an apparent rift has opened between Yoon and Han and their respective supporters within the ruling party.

In January, the presidential office requested Han to step down as party interim chief over their differences in handling the first lady's luxury bag scandal and the party’s candidate nominations for the general election. Han rejected the request, but two days afterward appeared with Yoon at the site of the Seocheon Market fire in a sign of attempted reconciliation.

By Jung Min-kyung (