Photo: Nam Hyeon-hee (left) and her former fiance Jeon Cheong-jo, in happier times. Credit: Women Chosun.
Not so long ago, South Korea impeached and removed its president because the daughter of her shaman had formed a shadow cabinet that was running the country. South Koreans have a higher than average bar for weird and shocking - but the plight of Olympic fencer Nam Hyeon-hee 남현희 has people gaping in gobsmacked fascination.
The 42-year-old Nam won fame after taking silver in the 2008 Beijing Olympics and bronze in the 2012 London Olympics, followed by a successful career as TV personality and owner of a fencing academy. She married in 2011, but announced a divorce in August 2023. Just two months later, on October 23, Nam announced that she would be getting re-married to a man named Jeon Cheong-jo 전청조, a chaebol heir 15 years her junior, and was looking forward to a child with him. Just three days later, the engagement was broken after a torrent of allegations that Jeon was a fraud.
Jeon had claimed to be an illegitimate and hidden grandson of the founder of the Paradise Group 파라다이스 그룹, a mid-tier chaebol that operates hotels and casinos. It subsequently emerged that Jeon ended his prison term earlier this year after the same claim earned him a fraud conviction - his most recent of ten priors. He claimed to have been born in New York; school yearbook photos showed him attending a middle school in Ganghwa-do Island 강화도 in Gyeonggi-do Province 경기도. The questionable claims didn’t stop there: Jeon was born as a woman, and it is unclear whether he has medically or socially transitioned, or has a preferred pronoun. (TBR will use “he/him” unless new revelations dictate otherwise.)
Jeon appears to have gone to staggering lengths to convince Nam that he was a wealthy chaebol heir. According to Nam’s Instagram, Jeon moved Nam into a residence in the Signiel Hotel in the Lotte World Tower, the tallest skyscraper in Seoul, and gave Nam lavish gifts including a Bentley Bentayga SUV and Dior bags. Jeon hired actors to pose as bodyguards, nosy journalists who would “accost” Jeon and Nam in public with questions about Jeon’s supposedly hidden connections to the Paradise Group - and even hired actors to speak to Nam posing as his wealthy parents.
Some parts of the story beggar belief. Jeon paraded a forged bank statement showing KRW 51t (USD 37.7b) of cash in his account, while the net worth of South Korea’s richest man - Michael Kim of MBK Partners, a private equity fund - is USD 9.7b. He first approached Nam claiming to want to learn to fence in order to duel Elon Musk. And his gambit of posing as a New Yorker by randomly seasoning his sentences with English words was so obviously fake that it quickly became a meme. (Example: “But your friend랑 같이 있으면 I am 신뢰에요~”)
Most significantly, Nam claimed that Jeon showed her fake pregnancy test results - but one might be forgiven for wondering why a 42-year-old woman with a daughter from a previous marriage would think she had been impregnated by someone lacking in reproductive capacity. Nam says she thought Jeon was a transgender man with a testicular transplant - which she thought was a thing among chaebols who wanted an heir. (But why would any man willingly donate his testicles?)
Given the level of credulity required to believe in Jeon’s lies, some have raised the possibility that Nam and Jeon were working together to defraud investors in Nam’s fencing academy - and that all this brouhaha is a truly next-level scheme on Nam’s part to extricate herself while leaving Jeon take the fall.