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First lady returns to diplomatic spotlight amid mounting domestic pressure

June 12, 2024 - 12:39 By Son Ji-hyoung
South Korean first lady Kim Keon Hee (left) holds a Turkmen shepherd dog during her visit with the host's first lady on Monday, in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. President Yoon Suk Yeol and Kim met Turkmen President Serdar Berdymukhamedov and his wife, about whom information has not been revealed. (Pool photo via Yonhap)

ASTANA, Kazakhstan -- First lady Kim Keon Hee has embraced the diplomatic spotlight during President Yoon Suk Yeol's Central Asian trip, amid political pressure to investigate allegations she violated Korea's antigraft law.

As Yoon and Kim are halfway through a trip involving state visits to three countries -- Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan -- Kim has expanded her public role as the first lady in a series of engagements highlighting cultural exchanges.

According to Yoon's spokesperson, Kim Soo-kyung, on Tuesday, first lady Kim met Ogulgerek Berdymukhamedova, wife of Turkmen People's Council Chair and "national leader" Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, to discuss the artistic value of traditional Turkmen handwoven goods, such as carpets, embroidery and ornaments.

Donning a traditional Turkmen outfit during the meeting, Kim was invited to the luncheon hosted by Berdymukhamedov, father of Turkmenistan's current president.

On the way to the luncheon, Berdymukhamedov expressed his willingness to gift a Turkmen shepherd dog, locally known as an Alabay, to Kim to mark their friendship. Turkmenistan has restricted the export of Alabay breed dogs since 2022. According to the spokesperson, Berdymukhamedov said he was impressed by Yoon and Kim's love of animals and wanted to cement a constructive bilateral relationship. Yoon and Kim have six dogs and five cats at their official residence in Seoul.

South Korean first lady Kim Keon Hee (left) poses for a photo with Ogulgerek Berdymukhamedova, wife of Turkmen People's Council Chair Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, Tuesday in Ashgabat, Turkmenistan. (Pool photo via Yonhap)

Kim also met President Serdar Berdymukhamedov, as well as his wife, who is rarely seen in public and whose name has not been released, during a state banquet Monday. Kim Tae-hyo, first deputy director of the National Security Office, said in a briefing that the appearance of the reclusive Turkmen first lady "indicates that (Turkmenistan) attaches significance to the visit."

Within Korea, however, Kim constantly faces political attacks, as the 22nd National Assembly, which began its term in late May, and where the opposition holds the majority of seats, is pressing ahead with plans to launch a special probe into Kim's acceptance of a luxury Dior bag. Kim's act was caught on hidden camera and is an alleged violation of the country's Improper Solicitation and Graft Act.

Opposition politicians have continued to express frustration over the recent announcement by the state-run Anti-corruption and Civil Rights Commission that it would not pursue the case, following six months of consideration.

On Monday, the commission's 15-member decision-making committee found that the act, which bans public servants and their spouses from receiving gifts worth 1 million won ($730) or more, does not stipulate that the spouse of a public servant is punishable. The secret camera showed Kim had received a bag worth some 3 million won from a pastor.

The body also dismissed complaints that a favor could have been offered to the pastor following Kim's acceptance of the handbag or that the handbag should have been registered as government property in the presidential records.

President Yoon Suk Yeol (second from left), first lady Kim Keon Hee (third from left), Turkmen People's Council Chair Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov (second from right) and his wife Ogulgerek Berdymukhamedova (fourth from right) walk together at Ashgabat International Airport in Turkmenistan, Tuesday. (Yonhap)

In response, Rep. Jin Sung-joon, the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea's chief of policy, said Tuesday that the anti-corruption commission's decision "rather justifies a special counsel probe" of the first lady. The opposition had passed a special probe bill concerning the first lady in the previous 21st National Assembly, amid a ruling party boycott of the vote, only for it to be vetoed by the president.

On Wednesday, Democratic Party Reps. Kang Jun-hyeon and Lee Jung-mun condemned the anti-corruption commission's decision in front of its office in the de facto administrative capital of Sejong.

Rep. Cho Kuk, chief of the Rebuilding Korea Party and Yoon's political archrival, said via Facebook that the anti-corruption agency's announcement "shows a stark contrast" with the fact that his daughter Cho Min was found guilty of violating the same antigraft law by winning a scholarship, which he said the trial confirmed was publicly awarded and not in violation of school procedures.

Rep. Cho was also found guilty of violating the same antigraft law on the grounds that he, as a then-public official who was her father, had received financial benefits from the scholarship as if he had received it directly, and is awaiting a Supreme Court verdict.