The president was dealing with a slowing economy, a deadly mob, and nuclear threats from a belligerent neighbor. Then came a much more personal scandal: spy camera footage which showed his wife accepting a $2,200 Dior bag as a gift.
It has quickly become one of the biggest political crises for President Yoon Suk Yeol of South Korea, who has made his mark on foreign policy by aligning his country more closely with the United States and Japan but has been bogged down by internal controversies. many of them involve the first lady, Kim Keon Hee.
Ms. Kim’s video, which emerged late last year, has caused a rift between Mr. Yoon and one of his most trusted lieutenants. This has rattled his political party: a senior member called on Ms Kim to apologize and compared she to Marie Antoinette. And, polls show, it has become a major issue ahead of crucial parliamentary elections in an increasingly polarized political atmosphere.
For nearly two years, Kim has questioned how this deeply patriarchal society views the role of the presidential spouse. Unlike previous first ladies, who typically remained in the shadow of her husband, she has reveled in the media attention and even publicly pressured the Yoon government to ban the breeding and slaughter of dogs for human consumption. . She has spoken about Mr. Yoon’s devotion to her. saying in 2022 that he had promised to cook for her and “kept that promise for the last decade.”
But Kim has also frequently courted controversy, sometimes in ways that critics say highlight his undue influence over the government.
In 2021, when Yoon, a former prosecutor, was campaigning for the presidency, she He apologized for inflating his resume to promote his art exhibition business. Then came the release of conversations with a journalist, who secretly recorded Ms. Kim suggesting that she was deeply involved in her husband’s campaign. She called Mr. Yoon “a fool” who “can’t do anything without me.” She also declared that he would retaliate against the hostile media “if he took power.”
Ms. Kim has also faced accusations that she was involved in a stock price manipulation scheme before Mr. Yoon’s election. In December, the opposition-controlled Parliament passed a bill that would have ordered a special prosecutor to investigate the allegations. Yoon, 63, who like Kim, 51, has denied the allegations, vetoed the bill.
Mr. Yoon, who has said his “happiest memory” was to marry Ms. Kim in 2012, he has not been able to get past the images of Dior.
The video was taken in September 2022 by a Korean-American pastor named Choi Jae-young with a camera hidden inside a wristwatch. The first news report of the episode came more than a year later, from a left-leaning YouTube channel called Voice of Seoul, the same outlet that published Ms. Kim’s chat with a reporter.
Footage shows Mr Choi visiting Ms Kim in her personal office outside the presidential complex and handing her the gift.
“Why do you keep bringing this?” Ms. Kim is heard saying. “Please, you don’t have to do this.”
Choi advocates friendly relations between North and South Korea, while Yoon has taken a more aggressive stance toward the North. He said he met Ms. Kim when Yoon was running for president and received an invitation to Yoon’s inauguration in May 2022. He visited Ms. Kim’s office a month later to thank her and said he had given her a $1300 Chanel. cosmetics gift set.
During that meeting, Choi said he overheard a conversation in which Kim appeared to be playing a role in the appointment of a top government official. He said that was when he decided to “expose her.” A Voice of Seoul reporter provided him with the spy camera and the cloud-blue calfskin Dior bag, and Mr. Choi sent a photo of the Dior bag to Ms. Kim, asking for another meeting.
Mr. Choi said that although he had asked to meet with the first lady several times, he was only granted an audience twice and only when he let her know in advance that he would be bringing expensive gifts. Government officials and their spouses are prohibited from accepting a gift worth more than $750, even if there is no potential conflict of interest.
“The gift was a ticket to an audience with her,” Choi said.
In the video, Ms. Kim also expressed her desire to “become actively involved in South Korea-North Korea relations,” raising fears that she was overstepping her role.
As the scandal raged, Ms. Kim avoided public appearances for a month and a half. Yoon’s office said the president and Kim had “nothing to share” on the matter.
Ms. Kim has not commented publicly on the various allegations against her since her 2021 apology, when she said she would “stick to the role of wife” if Mr. Yoon were elected. But during a rare interviewwith Artnet News last year, she signaled a shift, saying she wanted to become “a K-culture peddler” and support Mr. Yoon and his government in “cultural diplomacy.”
In conversations recorded by Mr. Choi and Voice of Seoul, she appeared to deny allegations of wrongdoing, characterizing them as political smear campaigns.
Some officials from Mr. Yoon’s People Power Party have accused Mr. Choi of setting up Ms. Kim and timing the release of the video to influence the April election. They have also said that Mrs Kim has not used the bag, which has been kept in a presidential warehouse.
“This is an explosive issue” because it reminds South Koreans of the recurring corruption that has disgraced most of the country’s former presidents, said Ahn Byong-jin, a political scientist at Kyung Hee University in Seoul.
Some members of Mr. Yoon’s party have demanded an apology from Ms. Kim as damage control. The opposition accused Ms Kim of influence peddling and “manipulation of government affairs”. They added that Mr. Yoon was being overly protective of his wife, in stark contrast to his government’s aggressive pursuit of corruption charges against Lee Jae-myung, the opposition leader.
Mr. Yoon was also criticized by his allies in the media.
“Conservatives in this country can no longer take the ‘Kim Keon Hee risk’.” saying columnist for the conservative newspaper Dong-A Ilbo.
As pressure mounted, PPP Chairman Kim Gi-hyeon resigned. Yoon replaced him with a close ally, Han Dong-hoon. But Han appeared to criticize the administration’s handling of the scandal and named the senior official who compared Kim to Marie Antoinette, a criticism that resonated widely with the public.
Yoon then demanded Han’s resignation, according to local media, but last week the two men appeared to have reached an uneasy truce.
His handling of the scandal has shown how much influence Kim wields within Yoon’s office, political analysts said. That’s why South Koreans joke, Ahn said, saying that “there are two VIPs in Yoon’s office and the number one VIP is Kim Keon Hee.”