President Yoon Suk-yeol and first lady Kim Keon-hee of South Korea sit in a car at the Amsterdam Airport Schiphol after arriving in the Netherlands for a state visit on Dec. 11. (Yonhap)
Many international news outlets have turned their attention to the controversy over South Korean first lady Kim Keon-hee’s apparent acceptance of a luxury handbag, with the Guardian reporting that “the emerging handbag scandal could not have come at a worse time for the country’s deeply unpopular president.”
“No scripted narrative”
On Friday (local time) freelance journalist Raphael Rashid wrote in an article titled, “The first lady and the Dior bag: the scandal shaking up South Korean politics” for the Guardian: “With elections for the country’s national assembly less than three months away, South Korean media is awash with accusations and recriminations — all of which stem from the alleged gift of a Dior handbag more than a year ago.”
Describing how the controversy was touched off, Rashid writes that the country’s first lady “is secretly filmed as she’s presented with a lavish gift from a pastor who advocates for unification with North Korea. But this is no scripted narrative, rather a real political crisis that has plunged South Korea’s conservative government into disarray.”
On the motivations of the pastor in question, Rashid writes that the man who shot the video “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.”
The piece also put this case in the wider political context of South Korea, noting another recent scandal over an abuse of power: Park Geun-hye, the former president who was impeached over influence peddling.
Articles from the Guardian (left) and the BBC (right).
The news outlet went on to point out Kim’s history, saying that the first lady is “no stranger to controversy, having weathered a series of allegations, including plagiarism concerning her academic writings, résumé-padding and accusations of stock manipulation.”
“The controversies,” Rashid wrote, “have proven a headache and a source of embarrassment for her husband.”
With a general election that will decide who has a majority in parliament slated for April 10, the journalist wrote, both of Korea’s two major parties are “going all out to secure support,” noting that it’s precisely in this context that the handbag scandal “could not have come at a worse time for the country’s deeply unpopular president.”
The Guardian specified that President Yoon Suk-yeol had earlier this month vetoed legislation that would have paved the way for a special prosecutor to investigate allegations that the first lady took part in stock manipulation, as well as citing the results of a poll that showed that seven out of 10 Korean believed that Yoon “needs to explain his position regarding the controversy around the first lady.”
In a poll commissioned by YTN, Embrain Public surveyed 1,000 voting-age Koreans over two days last week, asking about their opinions on the need for Yoon to explain his position on scandals related to the first lady. Findings showed that 69% believed the president should explain, while 24% believed that such an explanation would be unnecessary. The survey had a confidence level of 95%, with a margin error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
The article also shared in detail how the controversy snowballed following a comparison of the first lady to Marie Antoinette by Kim Kyung-yul, a member of the ruling People Power Party’s interim leadership board. After the comment, the party’s interim leader, Han Dong-hoon, called the video a “hidden camera sting,” but also said that the matter was “a matter of public concern.” These comments by Han then led the presidential office to demand Han’s resignation, which he refused.
The issue was also covered by the BBC in an article titled “South Korea: First lady’s Dior bag shakes country’s leadership,” in which it wrote that the controversy over the incident has thrown the ruling party “into disarray.”
The article also shared the insight of analysts, some of whom said the scandal “threatens the prospects of President Yoon Suk-yeol’s party in April’s elections.”
Han Dong-hoon, the interim leader of the ruling People Power Party, doubles over in a bow to President Yoon Suk-yeol while the two meet at the site of a major fire in South Chungcheong Province on Jan. 23. (Yonhap)
The BBC reported that in the footage, pastor Choi Jae-young gifts the first lady with a Dior bag with an estimated value of 1,800 pounds (3 million won).
The outlet went on to cite the same poll used in the Guardian article, pointing out that the “country’s eligible voters want an explanation from the president about his wife’s actions,” while “the opposition Democratic Party has also seized on the issue to attack Yoon and his party.”
“The scandal has also caused rifts within Yoon’s party,” the article went on to explain, once again showing how, after Han made a comment about the affair being “a matter of public concern,” the presidential office pushed him to resign.
The article concluded by saying that Yoon and Han have made amends, and that Han remains in the PPP.
These reports followed a previous one by the Wall Street Journal in an article titled “A $2,200 Dior Handbag Shakes South Korea’s Ruling Party.”
The Wall Street Journal said that while the video of Kim accepting a Dior bag at her office from a pastor was released last November, controversy over the video “has heated up in recent days in South Korea’s highly polarized political atmosphere.”
“In the video, Choi walks into an office for an exhibition agency that was run by the first lady at the time. The pastor hands a Dior shopping bag to Kim as soon as they meet, saying it is a way to show his appreciation. ‘Don’t bring expensive gifts like this,’ the first lady can be heard saying,” the newspaper reported.
The newspaper reported that since the video was released, the political opposition — including the Democratic Party — has gone on the attack, criticizing Kim’s acceptance of the bag as a “violation of South Korea’s antigraft law, which makes it illegal for public officials and their spouses to accept gifts exceeding about $750 at once.”
The newspaper also offered a detailed account of happenings inside the PPP.
“One party member compared the first lady to Marie Antoinette, the queen of France before the French Revolution, before apologizing for the comment. The interim leader of Yoon’s party, Han Dong-hoon, said last week the video was a hidden-camera trap but that the bag could be a matter of public concern. On Monday, he said he had rejected a request from the president’s office to step down from his position.”
The Wall Street Journal pointed out that “the bag controversy presents another political problem for Yoon,” who is already struggling with low approval ratings.
The Wall Street Journal also noted that “Kim has been out of the public eye for more than a month” since the scandal exploded and has not been attending public events.
By Lee You-jin, staff reporter
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