Published10 hours ago
The controversy over South Korean First Lady Kim Keon Hee allegedly accepting a luxury bag gift has thrown its ruling People Power Party (PPP) into disarray.
Spy camera footage released late last year appeared to show a pastor presenting a Christian Dior bag to her.
Some analysts say the scandal threatens the prospects of President Yoon Suk Yeol’s party in April’s elections.
Voters want an explanation from Mr Yoon, polls show, while the opposition has used the issue to attack him.
The video, published by left-wing YouTube channel Voice of Seoul, is reported to have been secretly filmed by the pastor Choi Jae-young using a camera embedded in his watch.
It appeared to show Mr Choi walking to a store to purchase the greyish-blue calfskin bag, with a receipt putting its cost at 3m won ($2,200; £1,800). Mr Choi then visits Covana Contents, a company in Seoul owned by the first lady, where Ms Kim then asks the pastor, “Why do you keep bringing me these things?”
The bag was allegedly given to the first lady in September 2022, according to local media.
While the video does not explicitly show Ms Kim accepting the gift, the Korea Herald 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.”
Mr Yoon’s office is reportedly planning to address the issue “as early as this month”, Yonhap news agency reported, citing unnamed sources.
A recent poll showed that 69% of the country’s eligible voters want an explanation from the president about his wife’s actions. An earlier poll in December showed 53% of respondents believed her behaviour was inappropriate.
The scandal is blowing up just three months before South Korea’s legislative elections. It also comes as Mr Yoon’s approval ratings have been inching up after dropping steadily over the past year.
Seoul-based political analyst Rhee Jong-hoon has described it as a “political bombshell”.
“The Kim Keon Hee risks are only going to get bigger,” he told Reuters news agency.
The opposition Democratic Party has also seized on the issue to attack Mr Yoon and the PPP. “It makes no sense for the presidential office and the ruling party to continue to ignore this and talk as if an apology will end the matter,” said its leader Hong Ik-pyo.
South Korean law makes it illegal for public officials and their spouses to receive gifts worth more than 1m won at one go, or a total of 3m won within a fiscal year.
The scandal has also caused rifts within Mr Yoon’s party.
The president is said to have pushed for his party’s leader Han Dong-hoon to resign after Mr Han commented that the controversy “can be a matter of public concern”.
“Basically, the matter was a planned set-up using a spy cam. However, there were several misdeeds in handling the issues,” the Korea Times quoted Mr Han as saying.
Both men appear to have mended their relationship and Mr Han remains in the party.
Mr Yoon’s initial reaction could have been politically costly, Sogang University political science professor Kim Jae-chun told The Straits Times.
“Did he, in a fit of pique, call his chief of staff, and say, ‘Just go’ to that guy… I mean, you only have 77 days left to the election (as at Jan 24),” he said.
Mr Han is widely considered a protégé and close associate of Mr Yoon and is tipped to be a presidential candidate in 2027.
Sparks also flew last week when Kim Kyung-yul, another PPP leader, compared the first lady with Marie Antoinette, the notorious French queen known for her extravagant ways.
This is the latest in a string of controversies surrounding South Korea’s 51-year-old first lady.
The opposition has long accused Ms Kim of being involved in stock price manipulation. Earlier this month, Mr Yoon vetoed a bill calling for his wife to be investigated over these allegations.
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.