Top envoy's husband takes off, wants a 'cruising life'
A trip to the United States to do some yachting by the foreign minister's spouse is provoking a backlash from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle.
Lee Yill-byung, 67, husband of Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha and a professor emeritus of computer science at Yonsei University, departed for New York Saturday, telling reporters he was going on a “self-planned trip” when asked about the purpose of his travel.
“Covid-19 isn’t going to disappear in a day or two,” said Lee. “I can’t just stay at home every day, and I think we need to cautiously resume regular life to a certain extent.”
On his personal blog, Lee previously indicated that he planned to purchase a yacht in Plattsburgh, New York, and sail the Caribbean Sea with his friends.
His wife's own ministry issued a special travel advisory on March 23 that urged the cancelation or postponement of nonessential overseas trips because of Covid-19.
Broadcaster KBS initially broke the news Saturday evening of Lee’s travel, and ruling and opposition lawmakers criticized him, especially as he is the spouse of a Cabinet member and the top Korean diplomat behind the travel advisory.
When asked by reporters at Incheon International Airport if he wasn’t concerned about Covid-19, Lee said he was worried but that he had “packed many masks.”
When asked if he was aware that he is relative of a public figure, Lee said, “It could be a burden if I am doing something bad, but I am doing what I believe is right, and I am living my own life, so I don’t have to compromise on this because of what others think.”
Lee was asked if Kang had spoken to him about this subject, and he replied, “We are both adults, so she didn’t particularly tell me not to go.”
Meanwhile, in a meeting of senior Foreign Ministry officials Sunday afternoon, Kang addressed the controversy and apologized for her husband’s U.S. trip.
“I am sorry that something like this happened," she said, "regardless of the circumstances, when we have urged the people to refrain from overseas travel and external activities.”
Later that day after work, Kang discussed the topic with reporters at the Foreign Ministry. “[Lee] is very well aware of the situation, and I tried to speak to him about it as well. But he ultimately made the decision himself and departed, and I am sorry about this.”
She added that her husband had planned the trip for a long time and delayed it many times, “so it’s difficult to ask him to return.”
Sailing the world on a yacht was at the top of his bucket list, according to Lee’s blog, which focused on his travels, cultural activities and family. He wrote on his blog that he wished to enjoy a “cruising life” and be able to say that he “lived in a beautiful place” for several years before he dies.
For nearly a year, Lee had planned buying a yacht. In June, he had planned to travel to Greece to purchase a yacht as traveling restrictions eased, but that trip was canceled due to the ongoing pandemic.
Lee reportedly was traveling to New York to purchase a 51-foot 1990 Kanter 51' Mistress V yacht, estimated to cost around $120,000.
Lee also reportedly made a trip to Vietnam last February, which was before the Foreign Ministry travel advisory in March.
Critics have pointed out that Lee’s trip runs contrary to the government campaign to contain the coronavirus and the Foreign Ministry’s own efforts to promote its K-quarantine efforts. The government has urged the public to exercise caution and to refrain from unnecessary travel — which even included returning to their hometowns for the five-day Chuseok holiday that ran through Sunday.
Kim Tae-nyeon, floor leader of the ruling Democratic Party (DP), said in a briefing at the National Assembly Sunday afternoon, “It is an inappropriate act as the act of a family member of a high-ranking official, and especially that of the foreign minister who issued an advisory urging against travel.”
Lee Nak-yon, leader of the DP, expressed regret about the trip and told reporters after a coronavirus-related meeting Sunday that Lee’s U.S. visit “is inappropriate in the eyes of the public.”
Kim Eun-hye, a spokesperson for the main opposition People Power Party (PPP), said in a statement Sunday, “Small businesses and the self-employed are suffering because of the coronavirus, but the family member of a high-ranking government official is traveling and even purchasing a yacht, enjoying the YOLO [you only live once] lifestyle.”
Minor opposition Justice Party head Sim Sang-jeung said Monday on the trip, “It is an insult to the people who are exercising extreme restraint and enduring Covid-19.”
On Monday, Kang told reporters that Lee “is also very embarrassed” at the situation and again apologized. She said she remains in touch with her husband.
As of early Monday, Lee shut down his personal blog entitled, “Yillbyung Lee’s Life.”
BY SARAH KIM [email@example.com]