South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol is months away from a critical election considered a referendum of his midterm popularity, but polls show he has a major issue: the latest scandal involving his wife.
Kim Keon Hee, 51, is not your typical first lady from conservative South Korea. She had already established a career in art show organisation when she married Yoon, a prosecutor at the time, 12 years ago. The couple has no children but has a slew of cats and dogs, whose images are prominently displayed in Yoon’s presidential office.
Unlike her predecessors, who mostly kept a low profile in the shadow of their husbands, Kim has her own fan club and appears at ease in the spotlight—as an avid promoter of Korean culture, a vocal critic of the dog meat trade, and a glamorous fashionista on overseas trips with Yoon, often dressed in domestic brands.
But it was reputedly her love of fancy handbags that landed the first lady in the middle of a blazing political maelstrom, with accusations that she accepted a $2,200 Christian Dior bag as a gift.
Kim has yet to respond to the emerging situation, despite rising requests for an explanation and an investigation, though her husband has described the allegations against her as a “political stunt.” CNN has contacted the presidential office for comment.
The first lady is no stranger to controversy; in recent years, she has apologised for résumé padding and faced claims ranging from academic plagiarism to stock manipulation.
The newest storm raging around Kim has refused to subside. Instead, it has turned into a full-fledged crisis for Yoon and South Korea’s ruling party as they prepare for a fiercely contested legislative election in April.
Dior Bag Scandal
The scandal began in late November, when a secretly recorded video leaked online claiming to show Kim getting a cloud-blue, calfskin “Lady Dior Pouch” from Choi Jae-young, a Korean American pastor.
“Why do you continue to bring these? “Please, you don’t have to do this,” the first lady says in the video when presented with the gift. The video does not show her take the bag from Choi, but a Dior shopping bag is shown on a coffee table as they continue their talk.
According to Choi, the meeting took place in Kim’s personal office at her art exhibition company in September 2022, many months after Yoon took over as president. Choi stated that he videotaped the meeting using a concealed camera disguised in his wristwatch.
South Korea’s anti-graft statute prohibits public officials and their spouses from accepting gifts for more than $750 in connection with their official activities. Kim’s refusal to reject the bag provided fodder to detractors who have long accused her of abusing her position for personal benefit.
Yoon addressed the charges publicly for the first time on Wednesday, stating that the tape was released to influence the April vote.
“This is clearly a political stunt, involving hidden camera footage captured a year ago and released before an election,” the president stated during an interview with national broadcaster KBS.
“Going forward, my wife and I need to be more clear and firm when dealing with people so that the public doesn’t worry.”
Yoon did not explicitly dispute that his wife had received the bag, but he expressed sorrow that Kim had not been more resolute with Choi.
Some Yoon supporters have accused Choi and the Voice of Seoul of setting up a trap to discredit the first lady and influence the forthcoming election. Choi, a proponent of Korean reunification, has advocated for better relations with North Korea, in contrast to Yoon’s harsh posture against Pyongyang.
In a January press conference, Choi justified his deployment of a hidden camera to film Kim, claiming it was vital to reveal her suspected abuse of her position as first lady.
Choi claimed he approached Kim on a messaging app to offer assistance on North Korean policy when Yoon was campaigning for president. He claimed she consented to a meeting in June 2022, at which his offer of a Chanel cosmetics set worth $1,300 was accepted by the first lady.
Choi claimed he requested to meet the first lady several times, but he was only granted permission on two occasions after informing her in advance that he would bring expensive gifts.
South Korean people have a low tolerance for corruption in the wake of high-profile scandals involving prior presidents, including Park Geun-hye, the country’s first female leader, who was impeached in 2017 after widespread demonstrations over her confidante’s intervention in government matters.
Yoon, who was part of the special investigation team that indicted Park, had promised to continue fighting corruption as president.
Kim has virtually disappeared from public view, while Yoon’s popularity has plummeted to a nine-month low.
Gallup Korea’s weekly poll, released last Friday, showed that the president’s approval rating had dropped to 29%. The incident involving the first lady was regarded as one of the leading causes of popular dissatisfaction, following the economy and Yoon’s perceived lack of communication.
In a Gallup Korea poll conducted last month, 56% of respondents believed Kim should apologise for reportedly getting the Dior bag. Another poll conducted by YTN cable news found that 69% of respondents wanted an explanation from Yoon.