photo: Jim Watson/AFP
Video of the first lady receiving the gift during a private audience demanded a wave of rejection in Parliament and increased distrust about the role of the president’s wife in the government
The case quickly turned into one of the biggest political crises for Yoon Suk-yeol. The president, who made a mark on foreign policy by deepening relations with the United States and Japan, is mired in internal controversies — many of them involving the first lady, Kim Keon-hee.
The first lady’s video, which emerged late last year, caused a rift between Yoon and one of her closest allies, which rocked her political party — a senior member asked Kim to apologize and compared her to Marie Antoinette . And, as polls show, the issue has become a significant issue ahead of parliamentary elections, in an increasingly polarized political atmosphere.
For nearly two years, Kim has challenged the way South Korea’s deeply patriarchal society views the role of presidential spouse. Unlike previous first ladies, who typically remained in their husband’s shadow, she took advantage of the media attention and even publicly pressured Yoon’s government to ban the breeding and slaughter of dogs for human consumption. She spoke about her husband’s devotion to her, saying in 2022 that he had promised to cook for her and had “fulfilled that promise over the last decade.”
But Kim has also frequently generated controversy, sometimes in ways that critics say highlight his undue influence over the government.
In 2021, when Yoon, a former prosecutor, was campaigning for president, she apologized for inflating her resume to promote her art exhibition business. Then there was the release of conversations with a reporter, who secretly recorded her, in which she suggested she was deeply involved in her husband’s campaign. She called Yoon “a fool” who “can’t do anything without me.” She also declared that she would retaliate against hostile media “if I take power.”
Kim also faced accusations that she was involved in a stock price manipulation scheme before Yoon’s election. In December, the opposition-controlled Parliament approved a bill that would have appointed a special prosecutor to investigate the allegations. Yoon, 63, who like Kim, 51, denied the accusations and vetoed the project.
The controversial video was made in September 2022, by a Korean-American pastor named Choi Jae-young, with a camera hidden inside a wristwatch. The first news about the episode came more than a year later, from a YouTube channel called Voice of Seoul, the same media outlet that published Kim’s chat with the reporter. The footage shows Choi visiting Kim in his personal office outside the presidential compound and handing him the gift.
— Why do you keep bringing this up? — the first lady says in the video. — Please, you don’t have to do this.
Choi advocates friendly relations between North and South Korea, while Yoon has taken a more aggressive stance toward the North. He said he met the first lady when Yoon was running for president and received an invitation to the inauguration in May 2022. He visited Kim’s office a month later to thank her and said he gave her a gift set of Chanel cosmetics worth U$1,300 (R$6,400).
During that meeting, Choi said he overheard a conversation in which Kim appeared to be playing a role in the appointment of a senior government official. He said it was then that he decided to “expose” her. A reporter from Voice of Seoul provided him with the spy camera and the Dior bag, made with calfskin and cloud blue, and Choi sent a photo of the Dior bag to Kim.
Choi said that although he asked several times to meet the first lady, this only happened twice, and only when he informed her in advance that he was bringing expensive gifts. Government employees and their spouses are prohibited from accepting gifts worth more than 750 dollars (R$3,700), even if no potential conflict of interest is involved.
“The gift was a ticket to an audience with her,” Choi said.
In the video, the first lady also expressed her desire to be “actively involved in relations” between North and South Korea, raising concerns that she was overstepping her role.
As the scandal spread, Kim avoided public appearances for a month and a half. Yoon’s Office, when asked if the president and first lady had any comment on the matter, said they had “nothing to share.”
Kim has not publicly commented on the various allegations against her regarding her involvement in political activities. In 2021, she said she would “maintain the role of wife” if Yoon was elected. But during a rare interview with Artnet News last year, she signaled a change, saying she wanted to become “a K-culture saleswoman” and support Yoon and her government in “cultural diplomacy.”
In conversations recorded by Choi and Voice of Seoul, she appeared to deny allegations of wrongdoing, characterizing them as political smear campaigns.
South Korea displays strength with first military parade in a decade;
Nearly 4,000 soldiers took part in the parade in central Seoul, which also showcased 170 tanks, drones and missiles.
Some officials from Yoon’s People Power Party accused Choi of setting a “trap” for the first lady and timing the release of the video to influence the April elections. They also said Kim did not use the bag, which was stored in a presidential repository.
A majority of South Koreans in polls say it was inappropriate for Kim to accept the scholarship and say they want an investigation and an explanation from Yoon.
“This is an explosive issue,” said Ahn Byong-jin, a political scientist at Kyung Hee University in Seoul, saying it reminds South Koreans of the recurring corruption that disgraced most of the country’s former presidents.
Some members of Yoon’s party demanded an apology from Kim to control the damage. The opposition accused her of influence peddling and “manipulation of government affairs”. Yoon, they added, was being overly protective of his wife, in stark contrast to his government’s aggressive pursuit of corruption allegations against Lee Jae-myung, the opposition leader. Yoon was also criticized by his allies in the media.
— Conservatives in this country can no longer take the ‘Kim Keon-hee risk’ — said a columnist for the conservative daily Dong-A Ilbo.
As pressure mounted, party chairman Kim Gi-hyeon resigned. Yoon replaced him with a close ally, Han Dong-hoon. But Han appeared to criticize the government’s handling of the scandal and named the senior official who compared Kim to Marie Antoinette, a criticism that resonated widely with the public.
Yoon then demanded Han’s resignation, according to local media, but last week the two men appeared to have reached an uneasy truce.
Their handling of the scandal showed how much influence Kim wields within Yoon’s cabinet, political analysts said. This is why South Koreans joke, Ahn said, that “there are two VIPs in Yoon’s office and the No. 1 VIP is Kim Keon-hee.”