The Shadow Over Yoon Seok-yeol's Presidency: How the Kim Keon-hee Controversy Shattered Public Trust

Korean First Lady Kim Keon-hee and President Yoon Seok-yeol
Credit: Erin Scott

The crushing defeat of President Yoon Seok-yeol's People Power Party in the April 10 general election has plunged his year-old administration into a crisis of confidence. At the heart of Yoon's political woes lies the ongoing controversy surrounding First Lady Kim Keon-hee and her alleged role as a "shadow power" in the presidential office. Kim's pervasive yet secluded influence has severely damaged public trust in Yoon's leadership and raised questions about who is truly running the government.

The allegations against Kim have been brewing for months. Even before Yoon's election, Kim faced accusations of manipulating stock prices related to Deutsch Motors and purchasing luxury handbags during a time of economic hardship for average Koreans. Despite public outcry, Yoon staunchly protected his wife, vetoing an opposition-backed "Kim Keon-hee Special Prosecutor's Act" and offering only a mild expression of regret rather than a full apology in a February interview.

"If these reports are true," warns Lee, "it would mean Kim Keon-hee is the real power behind the throne, not President Yoon. He must disclose the source of these appointment rumors and apologize to the people for allowing a 'shadow president' situation to develop."

Analysts point to Yoon's self-righteous and unapologetic stance as the root of the public's disillusionment. Hong Seong-jin, a political science professor at Sookmyung Women's University, says, "President Yoon seems to have a blind spot when it comes to his wife's behavior. His refusal to acknowledge legitimate concerns and his dismissal of calls for accountability have eroded trust in his judgment."

Adding to the intrigue, Kim has not made a public appearance since accompanying Yoon on a trip to the Netherlands in December. Her only known recent activity was secretly casting a ballot alone near their Yongsan residence on the first day of early voting on April 5, a fact the presidential office belatedly confirmed. Kim's covert voting and seclusion have only fueled speculation about her behind-the-scenes influence.

This post is for paying subscribers only

Already have an account? Sign in.

Subscribe to Focus on Korea

Sign up now to get access to the library of members-only issues.
Jamie Larson