By Lucy Adautin
A political uproar has ensued over a luxury handbag gifted to South Korea’s first lady, leading to a rift within the country’s ruling party just months before parliamentary elections.
The controversy originated in December last year when a liberal YouTube channel disclosed that Kim Keon Hee, the wife of conservative South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, had received a Christian Dior bag valued at approximately Won3million ($2,200) from Korean-American pastor Choi Jae-young. Accusations of abuse of power have been raised in connection with this incident.
“Why do you keep bringing me these things?” Kim asks Choi in the video, which the pastor filmed using a camera function on his wristwatch in 2022.
The footage raised discussion from across the political spectrum for an apology and investigation into whether the presidential couple violated anti-bribery laws.
“The president is not only failing to communicate with the public but is also actively involved in concealing suspicions surrounding the first lady, blatant interference in party matters and meddling in elections,” Lee Jae-myung, leader of the opposition Democratic party, told a party meeting on Friday.
Yoon and Kim have chosen not to publicly address the allegations of wrongdoing. Meanwhile, their political allies have accused the YouTube channel of entrapment and employing unethical tactics.
The presidential office informed local media that Kim did accept the gift, clarifying that it is “being managed and stored as a property of the government.” As of now, the office has not provided an immediate response to requests for further comments on the matter.
Last week, the leader of Yoon’s People Power party, former justice minister Han Dong-hoon, acknowledged that the gift could “be a matter of public concern”.
According to reports, Yoon expressed anger over remarks made by PPP lawmaker Kim Kyung-yul last week, comparing the first lady to Marie Antoinette. This led to Yoon’s chief of staff visiting and requesting the resignation of Han, who is seen as Yoon’s confidant, as party leader, just over a month after assuming the role. Despite the request, Han refused, creating a crisis within the party and posing a threat to the conservatives’ prospects in the upcoming parliamentary elections.
The DP currently holds a majority in the National Assembly, but polling indicates a tight race, with 29% of voters favoring the PPP, 25% for the DP, and 35% undecided, as per Hankook Research, Yoon’s disapproval rating has risen by five percentage points in the latest Gallup Korea poll, reaching its highest level in nine months.
President Yoon’s wife has consistently faced controversy, with Yoon vetoing an opposition bill this month to investigate her alleged involvement in stock manipulation.
Furthermore, the first lady has apologized publicly for plagiarism in her PhD and false claims on her CV, while Yoon’s mother-in-law recently received a one-year prison sentence for fraud, the accumulating controversies are impacting public perception and potentially jeopardizing the conservatives’ electoral standing.
“The questions surrounding Kim’s propriety have consistently undermined Yoon’s image as a corruption-buster,” said Jeongmin Kim, editorial director at Seoul-based information service Korea Pro.
She said the pressure from Yoon’s office for Han to resign, a move widely seen as exceeding the president’s authority, had crystallised concerns — including among some PPP lawmakers — about the administration’s “authoritarian tendencies”.
Yoon’s supporters view him as an independent-minded anti-corruption advocate, willing to confront corruption within both sides of South Korea’s divisive political landscape, as a rigorous prosecutor, he played a pivotal role in securing convictions for conservative former president Park Geun-hye and Samsung heir Lee Jae-yong on charges of bribery and corruption.
However, opponents argue that Yoon has employed the presidency, and previously the prosecutor’s office, to shield allies and pursue personal political vendettas, this duality in perceptions adds complexity to Yoon’s public image and political standing.