Former ruling People Power Party (PPP) interim leader Han Dong-hoon speaks during an event at the party headquarters in Yeouido, Seoul, Friday. Yonhap

Controversy surrounding private Telegram messages sent by first lady Kim Keon Hee to former ruling People Power Party (PPP) interim leader Han Dong-hoon in January has escalated into a significant issue, overshadowing the ruling party’s national convention scheduled later this month, according to political pundits, Monday.

The story dates back to January when public support for the PPP and the presidential office plummeted ahead of the April general election, due to mounting allegations that the first lady had accepted a luxury handbag as a gift in 2022.

According to media reports and political circles, Kim sent Telegram text messages to Han expressing regret for the trouble caused ahead of the 한국을 election campaigns. She also indicated her willingness to issue a public apology regarding the handbag issue if deemed necessary by the party. Kim sent a total of five messages to Han between January 15 and January 25, but did not receive any response.

But Han, while acknowledging that he “read the messages but did not reply to them,” claimed that they did not clearly convey Kim’s willingness to issue a public apology.

“I recall her text messages were emphasizing various circumstances that would make issuing a public apology difficult,” Han said during an interview with KBS on Friday, when asked if he had received the text messages from Kim in January.

“By January, I had already publicly and officially requested an apology from Kim, which led to an uncomfortable situation,” Han added.

With Han denying the publicly reported content of the messages, the situation has now evolved into a credibility dispute. The pro-Yoon faction asserts that “Kim clearly expressed her intention to apologize,” while Han’s side argues that “it was not intended as an apology.”

In addition to the conflict over the content of the messages, there are other unanswered questions, such as who initially leaked the story and what motivations were behind it.

One political commentator, known to be close to Han’s aides, argued that the leak could have been orchestrated by Kim to undermine Han’s candidacy in the party leadership race at the national convention later this month.

“It could be the first lady intended for the private messages to become public. Otherwise, it raises questions about who would have the capability to hack and disclose such messages,” Chin Jung-kwon, a special professor at Kwangwoon University, wrote on his Facebook. “It is reasonable to speculate that the faction at risk of losing political influence urged Kim to do this,” Chin added, calling the act an attempt to “intervene” in the national convention.

Some political observers even speculate that the story about the text messages was intentionally made public by the president himself.

Local media outlets earlier reported that the controversy surrounding the text messages began when a pro-Yoon lawmaker showed the entire contents to several lawmakers.

A PPP lawmaker said on condition of anonymity, “Among those who saw the message at the time, some lawmakers said that there are phrases that could lead one to infer that President Yoon sent the message to the pro-Yoon lawmaker.”

As the situation takes center stage at the ruling party’s national convention, concerns are mounting that the controversy over the text messages may overshadow constructive policy debates and discussions on the party’s vision for innovation.

Meanwhile, the presidential office has been distancing itself from the controversy.

“The presidential office has not intervened or interfered in any way in the election process of the national convention of the PPP, and will continue to refrain from doing so in the future,” a senior official at the presidential office said. “The presidential office is awaiting the decisions of party members and the public, and we will faithfully adhere to the mandates expressed by them through the outcomes of the national convention.”