The first lady and the Dior bag: the scandal shaking up South Korean politics | South Korea

It reads like a posh Ok-drama plot. South Korea’s first lady is secretly filmed as she’s offered with a lavish present from a pastor who advocates for unification with North Korea. But that is no scripted narrative, quite an actual political disaster that has plunged South Korea’s conservative authorities into disarray.

With elections for the nation’s nationwide meeting lower than three months away, South Korean media is awash with accusations and recriminations – all of which stem from the alleged present of a Dior purse greater than a yr in the past.

The turmoil started with a gathering between Korean-American pastor Choi Jae-young and Kim Keon Hee, the spouse of president Yoon Suk Yeol.

Choi has a historical past of engagement with the North and has visited the communist nation a number of instances to conduct prayers at Pyongyang’s handful of state-operated church buildings.

He says he was motivated by a need to “share advice” on issues associated to unification with the present administration, and so approached first lady Kim, cultivating a relationship together with her which culminated in a one-on-one assembly in 2022, simply months after her husband turned president.

During this assembly, Choi claims that he overheard Kim engaged in a cellphone dialog which touched upon delicate state affairs. Alarmed by the nature of the alleged dialogue, he determined to secretly report their subsequent assembly, using a spy digicam hid inside a wristwatch.

Accusations of abuse of energy are not any laughing matter in South Korea: the former conservative president, Park Geun-hye, was impeached and imprisoned for corruption, earlier than being pardoned by her successor.

South Korean president Yoon Suk Yeol and first lady Kim Keon-hee at Seoul airbase in July 2023. Photograph: Seokyong Lee/Penta Press/Shutterstock

It was throughout the course of Choi’s second assembly with Kim that he purportedly offered her with a Dior bag valued at 3 million gained ($2,240). Both the bag and the hid digicam had been offered by the left-leaning information web site Voice of Seoul, which is understood for its staunch opposition to the Yoon authorities.

Voice of Seoul launched the video at the finish of November. In it, the first lady is seen in dialogue with Choi who tells Kim that he’s introduced a gift, to which she replies “Why do you keep purchasing such items? Please don’t buy such expensive things.” Although the switch of the Dior bag to Kim just isn’t obvious, it continues to be positioned on the desk in her presence.

Speaking to international media, Choi mentioned he was purely pushed by the public’s proper to learn about alleged corruption. He claims that he messaged Kim prematurely, notifying her that he was bringing the bag and that there have been no makes an attempt to refuse it or return it later.

The potential authorized repercussions are ambiguous: anti-graft legal guidelines prohibit a public official’s partner from receiving presents price greater than 1 million gained (US$748) in a single sitting, however this have to be “in connection with the duties of the public official.”

At the identical time, Choi himself is going through criticism from supporters of the president who say the ploy is an try and affect the election.

The Guardian couldn’t independently confirm the video or Choi’s claims, nonetheless the anti-corruption company mentioned it was investigating the case. To date, there was no official assertion from the presidential workplace.

Kim Keon Hee is not any stranger to controversy, having weathered a collection of allegations, together with plagiarism regarding her educational writings, résumé-padding and accusations of stock manipulation.

The controversies have confirmed a headache and a supply of embarrassment for her husband. Earlier in January, Yoon vetoed a bill that might have authorised a particular investigation into his spouse’s alleged involvement in inventory manipulation.

Yoon Suk Yeol meets with Han Dong-hoon, interim chief of the ruling People Power Party. Photograph: YONHAP/EPA

With South Korea’s basic election scheduled for 10 April, each main political events are going all out to safe help. Neither get together enjoys important public favour, and each side are grappling with their very own inner energy struggles. It’s inside this context that the rising purse scandal couldn’t have come at a worse time for the nation’s deeply unpopular president.

In a ballot launched by an area information channel, 69% of respondents mentioned Yoon wants to clarify his place relating to the controversy round the first lady. Another ballot in December confirmed 53% of respondents imagine Kim acted inappropriately, whereas 27% mentioned she was caught in a entice set up to embarrass her.

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

Loyalists of the president have dismissed the bag scandal as a smear marketing campaign. But some members of his ruling People Power get together have advocated for an apology and the get together’s interim chief, Han Dong-hoon, has acknowledged that the controversy may be “a matter of public concern.”

Last week Han – who till lately served as justice minister and was extensively thought to be Yoon’s closest aide – said that whereas the Dior bag scandal was a “planned set-up using a spy camera … there were several misdeeds in handling the issues”.

Tension between Yoon’s workplace and his get together threatened to boil over final week when a senior member likened the state of affairs to the notoriety of Marie Antoinette, the French Queen recognized for her profligacy.

With obvious disagreement on tips on how to deal with the drawback at the high of the ruling get together, the inner disarray got here to a head on Sunday, when senior members of Yoon’s workplace met with Han and urged he resign. Han refused.

The unfolding drama just isn’t taking place nicely with main conservative media who’re usually sympathetic to the president, with the upheaval being described as a possible “risk” for the ruling get together in the run-up to the elections.

“As long as it is true that first lady Kim received a luxury bag, she cannot escape the criticism of the people. If President Yoon had apologised from the beginning … things would not have escalated to this extent,” the influential Chosun Ilbo mentioned in an editorial on Tuesday.

“He didn’t, and the problem has now reached the worst possible situation.”

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