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How spycam footage of first lady Kim Keon-hee’s £1700 Dior bag plunged South Korea into political crisis

File: Activists carrying photo showing South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, left, and his wife Kim Keon-hee (Associated Press)
File: Activists carrying photo showing South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, left, and his wife Kim Keon-hee (Associated Press)

Spy camera footage of South Korea’s first lady Kim Keon-hee accepting a $2200 (£1742) Dior bag from a pastor in 2022 has ballooned into a major political controversy in the country.

Just months ahead of crucial parliamentary elections, president Yoon Suk-yeol is faced with yet another controversy after the video stirred unrest within his party. The opposition has demanded an apology from him and the first lady, who was dubbed “Marie Antoinette of Seoul” after the notorious French queen.

After weeks of facing fire from the opposition, Yoon addressed the controversy in a TV interview on Wednesday. He did not deny that his wife had accepted the Dior bag but alleged that the footage was part of a “political plot” to undermine him, and said the first lady had felt “unable to cold-heartedly reject” the item when it was offered by the pastor. He stopped short of an apology.

How it started

A YouTube channel called the Voice of Seoul recently posted the footage recorded by a Korean-American pastor named Choi Jae-young using a spy camera hidden inside a wristwatch. The video, taken in September 2022, shows Kim apparently accepting a Dior pouch from him. The footage, released by the left-leaning YouTube channel, went viral in January.

The Korea Herald later reported that the presidential office confirmed the receipt of the Dior bag and said that it was “being managed and stored as a property of the government”.

In South Korea, government officials and their spouses cannot accept gifts that are worth more than $750. The law mandates this even if there is no seeming conflict of interest.

The video captures Choi meeting Kim in her private office, away from the presidential premises, and offering her a gift. The 51-year-old is heard saying “Why do you keep bringing these? Please, you don’t need to do this.”

Choi has said that he got acquainted with Kim during the president’s campaign and was later invited to the inauguration in May 2022. A month later, he visited her private office to thank her and that is when he claims he heard Kim discussing the appointment of a high-ranking official.

Upon hearing this, he said he felt the need to “expose her” involvement in government affairs.

A few months later, a Voice of Seoul reporter handed him a spycam fitted into his wristwatch and sent him to Kim’s office. Choi says he sent the photo of the Dior pouch to the first lady. He alleged that only after she realised he was bringing an expensive gift did she grant him an audience.

What happened next

After the footage was released, the opposition started attacking the president who was already battling several domestic issues, including the slowing economy, the Halloween crush probe fiasco, and the issue of an increasingly noisy neighbour in North Korea.

Several polls in the country characterised Kim’s behaviour as “inappropriate”. Many observers said they were “embarrassed” by controversy. A more recent poll showed that about 70 per cent of voters in South Korea want an explanation from the president about his wife’s actions.

Soon after the scandal broke, the first lady avoided public meetings.

But the rising anger of voters, especially just before elections, is something Yoon can no longer afford to ignore.

“This is the first time the first lady has been caught on camera accepting a luxury gift amid rampant allegations about her wrongdoing,” Choi Jin, head of the think tank Institute of Presidential Leadership in Seoul, told the South China Morning Post.

“This is a bitter pill to swallow for president Yoon, but he would have no alternatives but to publicly apologise over the incident which has riled up the people.”

The political disquiet

Officials from Yoon’s People Power Party (PPP) labelled the pastor’s actions as exploitative and claimed that he victimised Kim through the secret recording. Some have asked for an official apology, while others said an apology might give more ammunition to the opposition right before the elections.

The scandal also led to a public rift between Yoon and his longtime ally and ex-justice minister Han Dong-hoon, who was recently positioned as the interim head of PPP and touted as a future key figure in leadership.

Recently, Han revealed that he had resisted pressure from the presidential office to resign from his interim leadership role after he implied that the Dior bag situation could have been managed more effectively. However, reports later said the discord between the two men was resolved.

Another key leadership figure, Kim Kyung-yul, told broadcaster JTBC that “though there are several controversies, the president or the first lady should at least speak about the bag controversy to address the public sentiment”.

He added: “The French Revolution was an outcome of public uproar over Marie Antoinette’s luxurious life and disorderly privacy. There is no way of defending the first lady from this controversy. The only option is begging for the people’s mercy.”

Lee Soo-jung, a PPP preliminary candidate, also weighed in on the controversy and said that “there is an easy way of solving this issue – Kim should explain the situation, return the gift if she still owns it and apologise to the public”.

The main opposition Democratic Party of Korea has, meanwhile, used the controversy to attack the president. It accused Kim of “manipulating government affairs” and has called on the presidential office to explain his wife’s alleged violation of the country’s anti-graft law.

What the president said

In an interview to broadcaster KBS, the president addressed the controversy for the first time on Wednesday.

“The video [was made public] at a time when the general election is drawing near, a year after the issue happened, so we can see this as a political manoeuvre,” he said. “The fact that she was unable to cold-heartedly reject him was the problem, if one can call it a problem, and it is a little regrettable.

“However, it’s not important whether to call it a political manoeuvre or not,” he said.

“What’s important is to set clearer boundaries with others to prevent something like this from happening in the future.

“It is very difficult for the president or the president’s wife to treat anyone harshly,” he was quoted as saying by Korea JoongAng Daily.

Yoon mentioned that the pastor had intentionally sought out his wife, purportedly flaunting a connection with her deceased father, who had died during her middle school years.

But his response has not satisfied the opposition and the citizens. Some pointed out that there was no apology for the first lady’s “inappropriate behaviour”. The Democratic Party swooped in to attack the president for being “shameless”. Party’s spokesperson Kwon Chil-seung said: “The president’s shameless attitude is hopeless.”

Yoon told the broadcaster during the 100-minute interview that the encounter between his wife and the pastor took place prior to the couple’s relocation to their official presidential home in Hannam-dong, central Seoul. He said at the time, they resided in their personal apartment in the Seocho District, located in southern Seoul and Kim had set up an office in the basement of the apartment, where security measures were not as stringent.

Will the controversy hurt the president’s election prospects?

“It is a political bombshell,” Rhee Jong-hoon, a political analyst, told Reuters recently. “The Kim Keon-hee risks are only going to get bigger.”

Ahn Byong-jin, a political scientist at Kyung Hee University in Seoul​, believes that this controversy reminds South Koreans of the recurring corruption of most of the country’s former presidents. He told The New York Times: “This is an explosive issue.”

Previous allegations against first lady

The first lady of South Korea is no stranger to controversies. Even before Yoon became president, Kim issued a public apology in 2021 during his campaign for inflating her resume. “There were instances where I inflated my qualifications and falsely listed things in order to make myself look better. All of this was my own fault and carelessness,” she said, according to Hankyoreh Shimbun.

“I’m constantly fearful that I will become a stain on my husband’s wishes for the South Korean public,” she said at the time. “There were mistakes on my part in the process of combining work with my studies.”

In the past, when asked about the claims of her inflating her resume, she had told reporters: “Believe it or not, but I really don’t remember,” adding: “I wanted to stand out. If that’s a crime, then so be it.”

There were other controversies too, including accusations of plagiarism in her academic work.

According to the Korea Times, Kim was cleared of the allegations in August 2022 after Kookmin University, where Kim received her PhD, probed the allegations of plagiarism for about eight months and found no serious violation of the academic code of conduct. The university stated that the “statute of limitations of five years for verifying the papers has expired.”

However, a group of professors reignited the controversy. The group of 16 professors from 14 academic associations, called the “Pan-academic National Verification Group for the Verification of Suspicions of Plagiarism of First Lady Kim Keon-hee” revealed in September 2022 that all of Kim’s academic works are “indisputably entangled with plagiarism”.

The first lady has not address these allegations publicly.