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South Korea: What is the 'Dior Bag scandal' that landed ruling party in hot water before polls?

The pastor who gave South Korea's First lady Kim Keon Hee was reportedly concerned over her role in the administration and secretly filmed the incident. Kim has been involved in several controversies before, including plagiarism in her academic writings and accusations of stock manipulation.

Edited By: Aveek Banerjee @AveekABanerjee Seoul Published on: January 26, 2024 17:38 IST
South Korea, Dior bag scandal, First Lady
Image Source : REUTERS (FILE) South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and his wife Kim Keon Hee.

Seoul: Ahead of the parliamentary elections in South Korea in April, the controversy surrounding an online video showing First Lady Kim Keon Hee, 51, accepting a 3 million won ($2,250) Dior bag has landed President Yoon Suk Yeol and his People Party Power (PPP) in hot waters, with rising demands for an apology from party members. PPP members have urged the presidential couple to at least admit that receiving the bag was inappropriate in the incident known as the "Dior bag scandal".

The controversy threatens the PPP's prospects of reclaiming a parliamentary majority in the April elections. Although Yoon won the elections in 2022 in a close contest, his party remains a minority in the South Korean Parliament, which is controlled by the rival Democratic Party. The opposition is now using the incident to attack the ruling party while a member of the party called Kim "Marie Antoinette", a reference to the former French queen known for her extravagant lifestyle.

This is not the first time Kim has landed into controversy, as she was involved in a series of allegations, including plagiarism concerning her academic writings, résumé-padding and accusations of stock manipulation, according to The Guardian. These allegations have been a major headache and embarrassment for her husband, who vetoed a bill earlier this month authorising a special investigation into his wife’s alleged involvement in stock manipulation.

What is the controversy?

The case surfaced in November when a YouTube channel aired a video clip secretly recorded by a Korean American pastor Choi Jae-young with a hidden camera as he visited Kim and handed her the handbag. According to analysts, Kim may have violated an anti-bribery law when she accepted the expensive purse. However, Yoon's supporters claim Kim is the victim of an illegal plot to set her up and a smear campaign.

Choi has been involved in religious exchanges with North Korea and is an advocate of engagement with Pyongyang. The pastor said he initially sought a meeting with Kim out of concern for Yoon's hardline North Korea policy and given her response to discussions over possible luxury gifts, Choi believed such gifts were the only way to get to talk to her.

"You might say they were like an entry pass, a ticket for a meeting (with Kim)," Choi told Reuters in an interview on Tuesday. An unnamed presidential official told South Korea's media last week that Choi had deliberately approached Kim intending to illegally film using his family connections, and that gifts to the couple are handled and stored as property of the government.

During this meeting, Choi claims that he overheard Kim engaged in a phone conversation which touched upon sensitive state affairs. Alarmed by the nature of the alleged discussion, he decided to secretly record their next meeting, employing a spy camera concealed within a wristwatch. During the second meeting, Choi purportedly presented her with the Dior bag, which was provided by a left-leaning news site, along with the concealed camera.

According to the video released by the news site, Kim is heard saying, "Why do you keep purchasing such items? Please don’t buy such expensive things.” Although the transfer of the Dior bag to Kim is not apparent, it continues to be placed on the table in her presence.

Choi later told foreign media that he was purely driven by the public’s right to know about alleged corruption. He claims that he messaged Kim in advance, notifying her that he was bringing the bag and that there were no attempts to refuse it or return it later. Notably, anti-bribery laws in South Korea prohibit a public official’s spouse from receiving gifts worth more than 1 million won (US$748) in one sitting. Local media reported that the presidential office confirmed receipt of the bag and said that it was "being managed and stored as a property of the government."

Choi said he was concerned about Kim's role in the administration and worked with a reporter to film her accepting the pricey bag. "A normal person would then say, 'Reverend, I can't see you if you do this,'" he said. "But the First Lady gave me the place and time."

Repercussions on ruling party

Yoon's party said it had no information to share and analysts say the silence can create a flashpoint that can hamper PPP's prospects in the upcoming elections. A number of PPP members have argued public sentiment is focused on Kim and not the hidden camera sting, reflecting growing concern the issue is leaving a bad impression with voters.

"It is a political bombshell. The Kim Keon Hee risks are only going to get bigger," said Rhee Jong-hoon, a political analyst. Meanwhile, tensions between Yoon's office and his party boiled over last week when a member of its leadership, Kim Kyung-yul, likened the situation to that of Marie Antoinette.

Local news reports said Yoon was livid and wanted to remove the party's leader, Han Dong-hoon, marking at least a brief split between the president and an official widely seen as a protégé and close associate. The scandal could not have come at a worse time for South Korea's deeply unpopular president already combating with internal power struggles.

In a poll released by a local news channel, 69 per cent of respondents said Yoon needs to explain his position regarding the controversy around the first lady. Another poll in December showed 53 per cent of respondents believe Kim acted inappropriately, while 27 per cent said she was caught in a trap set up to embarrass her.

The party’s interim leader, Han Dong-hoon, has acknowledged that the controversy might be "a matter of public concern". The internal disarray within the PPP came to head on Sunday when senior members of Han's office demanded his resignation, to which he refused. 

In 2021, Kim made a public apology after months of allegations of falsified professional records and plagiarism in her PhD thesis overshadowed Yoon's campaign for president. Stock manipulations against her from 12 years ago are still fresh among South Korean politicians.

Last year, Seoul's government scrapped an expressway project amid allegations that its construction would financially benefit Ms Kim's family by raising the prices of land that they own, BBC reported. 

(with inputs from Reuters)

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