The Korea Herald


Yoon apologizes for first lady Dior bag scandal, calls push for special probe ‘political’

President says economic exchanges with Russia possible, dodges response to Trump remarks on USFK

By Son Ji-hyoung, Kim Arin, Park Jun-hee

Published : May 9, 2024 - 12:30

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President Yoon Suk Yeol speaks during a press conference held at the presidential office in Yongsa, central Seoul, on Thursday. (Yonhap) President Yoon Suk Yeol speaks during a press conference held at the presidential office in Yongsa, central Seoul, on Thursday. (Yonhap)

President Yoon Suk Yeol apologized Thursday for first lady Kim Keon Hee’s alleged acceptance of a Dior bag as a gift, while dismissing the continued calls for a special probe into the controversy as a political attack by the opposition.

In a press conference marking his two years in office, the president said he “offers a deep apology to the South Korean people for causing concern due to (his) wife’s unwise conduct.”

In undercover camera footage released last year on a YouTube channel, Kim was seen being presented with a luxury bag from a man identified as a pastor. The presidential office at the time downplayed the incident, saying the bag was kept “as government property” as opposed to a personal gift to the first lady.

But on the prospect of accepting the main Democratic Party of Korea calls for appointing a special counsel to investigate the first lady, the president said it wouldn’t be necessary as the prosecutorial service was already on the case.

He said he would avoid commenting on an ongoing investigation, and that he believes the prosecutors will “handle (the investigation) fairly and strictly.”

He explained that the Assembly bill for a special counsel investigation could wait until after possible inadequacies occur in the investigation by prosecutors. The Democratic Party’s unrelenting push for having a special counsel investigate the first lady at this stage seemed to be “a political maneuver” and “besides the point,” he added.

The commander-in-chief also suggested he may veto a separate special counsel bill, which the majority-controlling Democratic Party voted to pass last week, over the death of Marine Cpl. Chae Su-geun in July last year.

Chae died during a search and rescue operation to find the missing people from the heavy rainfall, which led to the country’s anti-corruption investigative office opening an investigation into possible wrongdoing by those at the Ministry of National Defense.

Yoon said that appointing a special counsel would be necessary in the case that the investigation which is already underway turns out to be insufficient.

After expressing regrets about his administration’s efforts falling short in improving Koreans’ livelihoods, the president said he would focus on the recovery of the domestic economy over the remaining three years of his term.

“At the end of the day, what matters is the (national) economy,” he said.

He said his administration was going “all out” to curb high consumer prices.

As to the government's support for the semiconductor chip industry, Yoon said he would "push further for more support at any rate" so as not to let South Korean chipmakers fall behind in the global chip race.

The presidential news conference, the second of its kind since his inauguration in May 2022, came about a month after the ruling bloc suffered a crushing defeat in the legislative election. This defeat made Yoon become the first South Korean President to have to work with a majority-opposition National Assembly throughout his five-year term.

Yoon said that his administration does not plan on "providing lethal weapons anywhere,” following questions on the tightening ties between Russia and North Korea.

“Recently we have diverged with Russia on points such as the war in Ukraine and the weapons being supplied from North Korea,” he said.

Calling Russia “a country that has had good relations with us for a long time,” he said that South Korea “can work with Russia where we can, and disagree where we disagree.” “In terms of economic cooperation, we can pursue common interests,” he said.

When asked about remarks from former US President Donald Trump that seem to question keeping US troops in South Korea, Yoon sidestepped giving a response on the spot.

“I’m careful to comment on a question with implications of the outcomes of the presidential election of another country,” he said. “What remains certain is that there is firm bipartisan support in the House and the Senate, as well as the administration in Washington for the South Korea-US alliance. I’m confident that our strong alliance with the US is not going to change.”

On the ruling People Power Party's defeat in the April 10 general election for the National Assembly, the president said he accepted the results as people’s evaluation of his performance as “unsatisfactory.”

“I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’ve been lacking,” he said. “In the end, no matter how hard I've tried to improve people’s lives, I think I’ve not been able to make changes that can actually be felt by the people, and I think my efforts in communicating those changes to the people have also fallen short.”

He said he would “communicate with the press more often,” and “be more honest about where we’re falling short.”

Speaking on health care reform, including expanding the medical school enrollment quota, Yoon said it was an "urgent task" that could no longer be postponed, considering the explosive demand for medical services.

Yoon also said that doctors seemed to be struggling to up with a unified opinion on the appropriate increase in medical school admissions, as he had previously asked for, which poses a tricky challenge to engaging in talks and negotiating with them.

While the medical sector remains opposed to the expansion plan, with junior doctors and medical professors students leaving their worksites, Yoon noted that he would solve the problem "based on a liberal democratic approach to persuasion."

The president also highlighted that medical reform was crucial to tackling the country's low birth rate.

"Parents are (now) in a situation where they have to pace back and forth when their children are ill because they can't get immediate treatment, so (it's important) to have well-established essential pediatric services and a regional health care system," Yoon said.

During his address, delivered minutes before the press conference, Yoon pledged to establish a new ministry aimed at addressing the nation's declining birth rate.

"To confront the pressing issue of low birth rates, tantamount to a national crisis, we will harness the full spectrum of governmental resources," he said.

The leader of this forthcoming ministry, tentatively dubbed the "Ministry for Low Birth Response Planning," will also serve as the deputy prime minister for social affairs.

Their mandate will encompass formulating policies spanning education, labor, and welfare sectors, slated to become integral components of the national agenda. Yoon urged the opposition-led National Assembly's active collaboration in amending the governmental organizational framework to facilitate the ministry's inception.

After the press conference, however, the Democratic Party slammed Yoon as being “oblivious to what the people want.”

“The president has dismissed the demands for a special counsel investigation are mere 'political maneuvering.' But Koreans want the truth on the first lady and that’s why they chose to support the Democratic Party in the general election,” Rep. Park Chan-dae, the party floor leader, told reporters.

Park said the Democratic Party was planning to propose a bill for a special counsel to investigate the first lady once the next National Assembly begins its term at the end of May.

He said the president “does not seem to have learned the lessons” from the ruling People Power Party's defeat in the April election for the Assembly. “If he continues to turn a blind eye to the voices of the people, as shown in the election, it’s only going to make more people turn their backs against the administration,” he said.