A $2,200 Dior Handbag Shakes South Korea’s Ruling Party

South Korean first lady Kim Keon-hee’s last public appearance was when she accompanied President Yoon Suk Yeol on a state visit in December.
South Korean first lady Kim Keon-hee’s last public appearance was when she accompanied President Yoon Suk Yeol on a state visit in December.

Summary

Questions about the first lady’s acceptance of the bag have put pressure on the ruling party ahead of April elections.

SEOUL—South Korea’s President Yoon Suk Yeol is facing an increasingly hostile North Korea. In Seoul, he has a very different problem: a $2,200 luxury Dior handbag.

The handbag has been shaking Yoon’s political party since a video secretly filmed by a pastor showed first lady Kim Keon-hee accepting it. The controversy sparked by the video, which was first published in November by left-leaning news site Voice of Seoul, has heated up in recent days in South Korea’s highly polarized political atmosphere.

Yoon’s party is fighting to win control of the National Assembly in April elections. The opposition has used the incident to attack Yoon, and the president’s People Power Party has been divided over how to respond. Some members have called on the first lady to apologize, while others have defended her, calling the video a “spy-camera trap."

The opposition party has called on the presidential office to provide an explanation for Kim’s alleged 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 or $2,200 a year.

Voice of Seoul filed a complaint with South Korean authorities accusing the first lady of bribery while a civic group filed a complaint with the national anticorruption agency requesting an investigation.

On Monday, Lee Chul-gyu, a ruling party lawmaker who is close to the president, said that the video had been an illegal trap. He said he believed the Dior bag was being held in storage by the government. The president and first lady haven’t publicly responded to questions about the bag and didn’t respond to a request for comment for this article.

Choi Jae-young said Monday that he decided to secretly film Kim at her office because she was abusing her power as first lady. He said he and the first lady came from the same hometown and members of their families know each other. Choi, an American, is an activist devoted to Korean reunification who has traveled to North Korea several times.

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 video was filmed by Choi in September 2022, he said. Supporters of Yoon have accused Choi and Voice of Seoul of releasing the video now to try to influence the election. Yoon, a conservative, has taken a tough stand against North Korea.

The bag controversy presents another political problem for Yoon, whose job approval ratings have suffered amid economic stagnation and rising inflation. About three-fifths of South Koreans disapprove of Yoon’s job performance, according to polls. A recent poll showed that 62% of respondents viewed the Dior bag incident as a violation of antigraft laws while 30% saw it as an unethical hidden-camera trap. The majority of South Koreans think the allegations should be investigated, polls showed.

The bag affair has also created waves in Yoon’s ruling party. One party member compared the first lady to Marie Antoinette, the queen of France before the French Revolution, before later 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 Dior-bag incident isn’t the first time the first lady has attracted controversy. Even before Yoon took office in May 2022, Kim apologized over allegations that she falsified her credentials on a résumé for a teaching job. She has also faced allegations of involvement in manipulating stock prices. The presidential office has denied the allegations, and earlier this month Yoon vetoed a bill aimed at launching a special investigation into Kim’s alleged involvement in the stock manipulation.

Kim has made banning the consumption of dog meat one of her main causes as first lady. The presidential couple owns six dogs and eight cats. She has garnered attention for wearing local fashion brands that are eco-friendly, with vegan handbags carried by the first lady selling out in South Korea.

Kim has been out of the public eye for more than a month. Her last public appearance was when she accompanied Yoon to the Netherlands on a state visit in December.

Write to Dasl Yoon at dasl.yoon@wsj.com

Catch all the Politics News and Updates on Live Mint. Download The Mint News App to get Daily Market Updates & Live Business News.
more

topics

MINT SPECIALS

Switch to the Mint app for fast and personalized news - Get App