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[News Focus] Foreign minister in hot water over husband's US trip to purchase yacht

Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha (right) and her husband Lee Yill-byung, a professor emeritus of computer science at Yonsei University (Yonhap)
Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha (right) and her husband Lee Yill-byung, a professor emeritus of computer science at Yonsei University (Yonhap)

Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha has been hit by controversy over her husband’s recent trip to the US presumably to purchase a yacht, with political parties lambasting the excursion as “inappropriate,” saying it went against her own recommendation that people refrain from overseas travel amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
 
Local broadcaster KBS on Saturday reported that Lee Yill-byung, a professor emeritus of computer science at Yonsei University, was spotted at Incheon Airport about to depart for the US for personal travel. Lee had shared his plans to purchase a yacht and travel around the US on his personal blog for months, according to the report.
 
“I am going on self-guided travel,” he said on camera at the airport. 
  
“Coronavirus isn’t going to disappear in a day or two. I just can’t remain at home all the time,” he responded when asked about concerns surrounding his trip, amid the government’s advice to refrain from nonessential travel.
 
Lee’s trip comes as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ special travel advisory, issued in March, remains in effect. The ministry is still asking the public to either cancel or postpone all overseas travel due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and has extended the travel advisory until Oct. 19. People in Korea were also urged to refrain from long-distance travel and stay home as much as possible during the recent five-day Chuseok holiday.
 
While the special advisory is not legally binding, Lee’s trip has sparked public outrage, with many condemning the government for what they see as a double standard.
   
During a meeting with officials at the ministry, Kang said she felt sorry about the occurrence.
  “
I did explain, but (he) decided to leave. But at any rate, I feel sorry (for the incident),” she told reporters Sunday. “It’s difficult to ask him to return to Korea, as (he) went to (the US) after planning for a long time and putting it off for long.”
 
On Monday, Kang again said she is sorry, and added she has been in contact with her husband in regards to the issue.
 
Despite her apologies, she has been the target of criticism from both sides of the political spectrum.
 
Rep. Lee Nak-yon, head of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, said the trip is “inappropriate from the eyes of the public,” while Rep. Kim Tae-nyeon, floor leader of the party, also called the trip “inappropriate” for a family member of a high-ranking government official and, specifically, the same foreign minister who issued the travel advisory.
 
“When small businesses and the self-employed are suffering due to COVID-19, families of high-ranking government officials are traveling and buying a yacht, enjoying the YOLO (you only live once) life,” said Rep. Kim Eun-hye, spokesperson for the main opposition People Power Party.
 
Rep. Choi Hyung-doo, another party spokesman, said it is hard to believe the husband of the foreign minister went on an overseas trip as people here have refrained from overseas trips and visits to their families during the Chuseok holiday.
 
Meanwhile, others said Lee is free to do what he wants, as he is not a government official himself and did not break any law.
 
“This is his personal life, and do we have to bring up this issue?” said popular political commentator Chin Jung-kwon.
 
“Professor Lee is not a public figure, but a spouse of an official. So he shouldn’t be required to follow the same degree of speech and action asked of the officials,” said Park Won-seok, who chairs the policy committee of the minor opposition Justice Party, during an interview with a local radio. “The ministry’s special travel advisory is a type of recommendation, and violating it doesn’t mean it is illegal.”
 
But he added the public is critical of Lee’s decision to go overseas at a time when many are refraining from overseas trips due to COVID-19 concerns and when his spouse is the foreign minister who is in charge of issuing such measures. 

By Ahn Sung-mi (sahn@heraldcorp.com)
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