A Luxury Dior Handbag Rattles South Korea’s Politics

Scandal involving the first lady and a luxury handbag dominates South Korean politics ahead of legislative elections

In South Korea, the upcoming legislative elections are being overshadowed by intense political infighting and personal misdeeds. At the center of the controversy is a scandal involving the first lady, Kim Keon Hee, and a luxury Christian Dior handbag. The revelation of this scandal, along with other suspected wrongdoings tied to the first lady, has sparked growing public discontent and poses a significant challenge for President Yoon Suk Yeol. Mishandling the situation could jeopardize his party’s chances of winning back a majority in the parliament and weaken his grip on power. As the election draws closer, the political landscape in South Korea is becoming increasingly volatile.

The Scandal Unveiled

The scandal began when the first lady was secretly filmed accepting a Christian Dior handbag worth approximately $2,250 from a U.S.-based pastor named Choi Jae-young in September 2022, just a few months after her husband took office as president. The video was released in late November through a left-leaning online media outlet called Voice of Seoul, which claimed that the sting operation was justified in the public interest. Choi, who is also a Korea reunification activist, stated that he initially approached Kim to offer advice on North Korea policies and that they bonded over their shared hometown and family ties. However, he claimed to be “appalled” by her alleged abuse of power during their first meeting and revealed that she had also accepted a Chanel perfume and skincare set worth $1,340.

Legal and Political Ramifications

The scandal has raised questions about the legality of the first lady accepting such gifts. South Korean law prohibits spouses of public officials from receiving gifts valued at more than $750 if they are connected to the officials’ public service. It is unclear how the law applies to the alleged gifts given by Choi. Furthermore, the anti-graft law requires President Yoon to return the gift and report the matter to law enforcement or anti-corruption authorities. However, Choi revealed in a recent interview that neither Kim nor the presidential office has returned the handbag since the video was released. As a result, the head of Voice of Seoul filed a criminal complaint against Yoon and Kim for violating the law, and a major civic organization has requested a preliminary investigation by a government anti-corruption agency.

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A History of Controversies

This scandal is not the first time that first lady Kim Keon Hee has faced allegations of wrongdoing. During President Yoon’s presidential race, accusations of resume padding emerged, leading Kim to offer a public apology. She has also been accused of academic plagiarism and suspected involvement in stock price manipulation, along with her mother. The president recently vetoed a bill for a special counsel probe into the stock manipulation case. Additionally, the main opposition Democratic Party accused the Yoon government of rerouting a planned expressway to benefit Kim’s family. The presidential office has either denied or remained silent on most of these allegations, further fueling public criticism.

Criticism and Consequences

The Dior bag scandal has sparked condemnation from the public, with many calling for the first lady to apologize. In a recent survey conducted by Gallup Korea and Seoul Economy Daily, 56% of respondents believed that she should apologize for accepting the bag. Another survey by pollster Embrain Public and news broadcaster YTN revealed that nearly 70% of respondents believed that President Yoon should express his position on the issue. However, both Kim and Yoon’s office have remained silent on the matter, with anonymous officials criticizing the pastor for “trapping” the first lady. Within the ruling People Power Party, some members have spoken out against the first lady, comparing her to Marie Antoinette and urging her to apologize. The scandal has also led to internal disputes within the ruling party, with Yoon’s chief of staff demanding the resignation of Han Dong-hoon, the interim leader of the party. Despite this, Han has vowed to keep his position.

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As South Korea’s legislative elections draw near, the scandal involving the first lady and the luxury handbag has cast a shadow over the political landscape. President Yoon Suk Yeol faces the challenge of managing the growing public discontent and addressing the allegations of wrongdoing tied to his wife. The outcome of the elections could be significantly influenced by how the president handles this scandal. The controversy surrounding the first lady highlights the delicate balance between personal misdeeds and political consequences. As the nation watches, South Korea’s political future hangs in the balance.