April 16, 2024

A $2,200 luxury handbag has shaken up South Korea’s government leadership, creating divisions within President Yoon Suk-yeol’s conservative People Power Party and putting it at risk of losing popular support ahead of parliamentary elections in April amid an already-charged political atmosphere.

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Yoon is reportedly feuding with members of his party over how to respond to a video of his wife, First Lady Kim Keon-hee, receiving a Christian Dior handbag, allegedly inappropriately though under dubious circumstances, in September 2022. Since the video surfaced late last year, Yoon and his wife have not directly addressed the allegations, but the controversy has sparked criticism among fellow party members as well as the PPP’s rival Democratic Party, which currently holds the majority of seats in the National Assembly.

On Jan. 18, PPP interim leader Han Dong-hoon, considered to be Yoon’s protegé because of how close they were, told reporters that the handbag “can be a matter of public concern,” the Korea Times reported. Days later, Han confirmed to Korean reporters that he’d been asked by the President’s office to leave his post, though he rejected the offer to resign.

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While Yoon and Han seem to have mended their fractured relationship, appearing together at a recent public event, the “Dior bag scandal”—as local media have dubbed it—remains a point of contention among some PPP members (one member even likened the First Lady to the notoriously lavish French Queen Marie Antoinette). Meanwhile, PPP opponents have used the scandal to chip away at public support for the party. Public opinion polls published this week show 70% of South Koreans want Yoon to address the issue, according to local paper Hankyoreh.

“It is serious and should not be overlooked,” Rep. Ahn Cheol-soo of the PPP said in a radio interview on Tuesday. “I’ve seen cases where negative issues that are not properly addressed ahead of the elections ultimately impact voter sentiment.”

What exactly did the video capture?

The video, which was shot clandestinely by Korean-American pastor Choi Jae-young, was first posted by left-leaning YouTube media site Voice of Seoul News in November.

The footage shows Choi, behind the camera, walking to a Christian Dior store to purchase a handbag—with receipts showing it cost 3 million won. The video continues to show Choi walking into the office of Covana Contents, an exhibition planning firm in Seoul that First Lady Kim owns. Inside, he meets the First Lady and passes her the Dior shopping bag. In turn Kim was heard responding in Korean: “Don’t keep doing this,” and “Never buy something as expensive as this.”

The Korea Herald reported that the President’s office confirmed Kim’s receipt of the bag and said that it was “being managed and stored as a property of the government.”

Under South Korea’s anti-graft law, it is illegal for public officials and their spouses to receive gifts worth more than 1 million Korean won ($750) in one sitting or a total of 3 million won within a fiscal year.

According to the Korea Herald, Choi admitted to the National Assembly that he had planned the exchange and recorded it with a camera embedded in his watch. He said he was able to meet Kim directly because they hail from the same hometown, and he had decided to film the video because he believed Kim regularly abused her power as First Lady—claiming that she “privatized and monopolized all systems in the presidential office.”

Choi has defended his use of a secret camera, saying that there would have been no other way to expose Kim’s alleged malfeasance, amid claims from PPP supporters that the First Lady was entrapped in the situation.

What have reactions been like?

Voice of Seoul reportedly first filed a complaint accusing both Yoon and Kim of bribery with South Korean authorities. A civic group also filed a complaint in December with the country’s Anti-Corrupt and Civil Rights Commission, requesting an investigation of Kim’s possible violation.

PPP lawmakers have been divided. Rep. Lee Sang-min told a local radio broadcast that “one may think that the First Lady fell victim to a set-up using a spy cam. However, the situation did involve the exchange of the luxury bag, making it difficult for her to entirely evade accusations.” Some lawmakers are asking for the First Lady to apologize, while Yoon’s conservative supporters have called the video a political stunt ahead of the upcoming parliamentary elections.

The President’s office maintains there is no need to apologize over the incident, as the gift Kim was given was considered as having been received not personally but rather by the state, local paper Hankyoreh reports. 

How controversial is South Korea’s First Lady?

First Lady Kim already had a fair share of past controversies. 

Even before Yoon became President, Kim issued a public apology during his campaign for inflating her credentials in her resumé. And in 2022, allegations of Kim having plagiarized her doctorate dissertation and other academic publications during her time in university surfaced. (According to the Korea Times, Kookmin University—where she received her Ph.D.—found no serious violations of academic code of conduct or plagiarism after probing her publications for eight months.)

Kim also previously faced accusations of tax evasion—and in February, a court ruled that her and her mother’s accounts were used in a Deutsche Motors stock price manipulation scandal. Earlier this month, Yoon vetoed a bill that would allow the Korean National Assembly to conduct a probe into the First Lady’s alleged involvement in stock market manipulation.

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