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Connected figure offered to save USKI

Apr 20,2018
Last January, when a Korean government-funded think tank in Washington faced scrutiny from the National Assembly and risked losing Seoul’s financial support, a well-connected figure who was applying for a visiting scholar position at the institute offered to come to its rescue, according to an email disclosed by an opposition lawmaker on Thursday.

The connected figure, surnamed Jang, is the wife of Hong Il-pyo, a senior figure in President Moon Jae-in’s office, but at the time of the email, he was working for Kim Ki-sik, a Democratic Party lawmaker who served in the National Assembly’s powerful policy committee.

“Mr. Kim’s behavior brought hardship to your institute,” Jang wrote in an email to the Washington-based U.S.-Korea Institute (USKI) on Jan. 28, 2017. “My husaband [sic] could become a mediator and help you deal with issues through conversation.”

During his tenure in the National Assembly from 2012 to 2016, Kim repeatedly raised questions about the USKI’s funding. A National Assembly committee last August said the think tank’s budget and management have lacked transparency over the years, and that the institute has not produced substantive results.

The USKI is the only Washington think tank specializing in Korean Peninsula affairs and is best known for its analysis of satellite imagery from North Korea. It is expected to shut down on May 11 after the Korean government decided to cut off funding.

Lee Tae-kyu, the Bareunmirae Party lawmaker who obtained the email, accused Jang of using her connection with Representative Kim to request the position of visiting scholar at the institute. “The institute perceived the entire affair as something like carrot-and-stick,” he said.

The irony, though, is that Kim’s tenure as lawmaker had already ended when Jang sent the email. Kim was running a Democratic Party think tank, and Hong was one of his top aides at the think tank.

Instead, it was Rep. Lee Hack-young, a close associate of Kim, who pressed the USKI issue in the National Assembly. “Kim’s tenure as a lawmaker had ended, but the U.S.-Korea Institute perceived that he was still pulling strings behind the scenes,” Lee’s office said in a statement.

Lee also accused Jang of using her position as head of the Board of Audit and Inspection (BAI) of Korea to gain the visiting scholar role. In the introduction of her email, she wrote, “First, you had better consider me not as the wife of a former congressman’s assistant but as the Director General of the BAI” since the “BAI deems it a highly meaningful decision to accept me into your institute.”

The opposition lawmaker characterized the email as “a very threatening action which associates an institute which receives funding from the government to the BAI, which oversees and monitors the Korean government’s finances.” He requested the BAI investigate Jang.

In a phone interview with the JoongAng Ilbo, Jang said she had emphasized her position at the BAI because “my husband’s actions should not be associated with my candidacy.” She dismissed attempts by people to read any deeper into the email.

“At that time, my husband was not an administrator in the Blue House but a civilian,” she said, referring to her husband’s brief period working for Kim at his think tank. “If the U.S.-Korea Institute faced difficulties because of my husband’s actions during his time as an assistant to a lawmaker, that issue could have been resolved through a conversation when he became a civilian.”

Earlier this week, Kim resigned after a short-lived tenure as governor of the Financial Supervisory Service, the country’s financial watchdog.

Moon appointed Kim at the end of last month to head the office, but Kim was mired in controversy surrounding trips he made while he was a lawmaker and illegal use of political funds.

BY AN HYO-SEONG [shim.kyuseok@joongang.co.kr]