April 13, 2024

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A political furore over a luxury handbag gifted to South Korea’s first lady caused a rupture at the top of the country’s ruling party this week, drawing accusations of abuse of power less than three months ahead of parliamentary elections.

The scandal traces back to December last year, when a liberal YouTube channel revealed Kim Keon Hee, the wife of conservative South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, had received a Christian Dior bag worth about Won3mn ($2,200) from a Korean-American pastor, Choi Jae-young.

“Why do you keep bringing me these things?” Kim asks Choi in the video, which the pastor filmed using a camera function on his wristwatch in 2022.

The footage has prompted calls from across the political spectrum for an apology and investigation into whether the presidential couple violated anti-bribery laws.

“The president is not only failing to communicate with the public but is also actively involved in concealing suspicions surrounding the first lady, blatant interference in party matters and meddling in elections,” Lee Jae-myung, leader of the opposition Democratic party, told a party meeting on Friday.

Yoon and Kim have refused to address the allegations of wrongdoing publicly. Their political allies have accused the YouTube channel of entrapment and dirty tricks.

The presidential office told local media that Kim did accept the gift, which was “being managed and stored as a property of the government”. The office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol’s wife Kim Keon Hee arrives at the White House in Washington for a state dinner in April
Kim Keon Hee arrives at the White House in Washington for a state dinner in April. Her controversial public image has consistently dogged President Yoon Suk Yeol © Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

But last week, the leader of Yoon’s People Power party, former justice minister Han Dong-hoon, acknowledged that the gift could “be a matter of public concern”.

According to local media reports, Yoon was also incensed by remarks made last week by PPP lawmaker and Han ally Kim Kyung-yul comparing the first lady to Marie Antoinette.

That led to a visit from Yoon’s chief of staff and a request that Han — who, like Yoon, is a former prosecutor and was widely seen as the president’s confidant and protégé — resign as party leader just over a month after taking the job.

But Han refused, throwing the party into crisis when he made the request public this week. Analysts said the growing controversy was beginning to threaten the conservatives’ chances in the upcoming parliamentary elections.

The DP currently enjoys a majority in the country’s National Assembly, but polling suggests a close race, with 29 per cent of voters surveyed last month expressing a preference for the PPP, 25 per cent for the DP and 35 per cent undecided, according to Hankook Research.

But Yoon’s disapproval rating has climbed by five percentage points on the previous week to its highest level in nine months, according to a Gallup Korea poll released on Friday.

Han Dong-hoon, chief of the ruling People Power party, speaks in Seoul last week
Han Dong-hoon, chief of the ruling People Power party who was widely seen as President Yoon Suk Yeol’s protégé, has conceded that the gift is ‘a matter of public concern’ © Yonhap/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock AFP via Getty Images

The first lady’s controversial image has consistently dogged President Yoon. This month, Yoon vetoed an opposition bill to open a special investigation into his wife’s alleged involvement in stock manipulation.

Kim has also publicly apologised over allegations of plagiarism in her PhD and a series of false claims on her CV, while the president’s 76-year-old mother-in-law was recently handed a one-year prison sentence for fraud.

“The questions surrounding Kim’s propriety have consistently undermined Yoon’s image as a corruption-buster,” said Jeongmin Kim, editorial director at Seoul-based information service Korea Pro.

She added that the pressure from Yoon’s office for Han to resign, a move widely seen as exceeding the president’s authority, had crystallised concerns — including among some PPP lawmakers — about the administration’s “authoritarian tendencies”.

“During South Korea’s authoritarian period, all political power was concentrated in the presidency,” she said. “So for a president to be seen to interfere so blatantly in parliamentary politics — and over an issue involving his own family — is a really bad look.”

Supporters see in Yoon an independent-minded graft-buster who was willing to stand up to corrupt practices on both sides of South Korea’s rancorous political divide. As a hardline prosecutor, he oversaw the conviction of conservative former president Park Geun-hye and Samsung heir Lee Jae-yong on bribery and corruption charges.

But opponents accuse him of using the presidency — and previously the prosecutor’s office — to protect allies and pursue political vendettas.

Last year, Lee Jae-myung, the DP leader who lost to Yoon by a margin of less than one percentage point in 2022’s presidential election, went on hunger strike in protest against the Yoon government’s policies.

Lee, who is also facing prosecution for asking an underwear manufacturer to transfer $8mn to North Korea in an illegal effort to foster economic ties, was stabbed in the neck this month by an assailant who wanted “to prevent him from becoming president”, according to police.

The opposition leader has since returned to frontline politics but now faces a criminal complaint from doctors’ groups who argue that his condition did not warrant him being airlifted from the southern city of Busan to a hospital in Seoul.

“[Lee] could have been treated at Pusan ​​National University Hospital if he were in a life-or-death situation,” Lim Hyun-taek, president of the Korean Paediatric Association, said after filing the complaint with prosecutors. “Mobilising lawmakers to request a [helicopter] transfer to Seoul . . . is an abuse of power and a demand for special treatment.”

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