‘Marie Antoinette’: What’s South Korea’s First Lady’s ‘Dior bag scandal’

The recent controversy surrounding South Korea’s First Lady, Kim Keon Hee, and a luxury Dior handbag has sparked intense debate and scrutiny within the nation’s political circles. This incident, involving hidden camera footage and allegations of inappropriate gift acceptance, has put President Yoon Suk Yeol and the People Power Party (PPP) under the spotlight, raising questions about the implications for the upcoming parliamentary elections and the broader political landscape. Here are some frequently asked questions to help understand the nuances of this unfolding scandal.
What is the Dior bag scandal?
The Dior bag scandal is a controversy involving South Korea’s First Lady, Kim Keon Hee, who allegedly accepted a luxury Dior bag worth about $2,250 from a Korean American pastor, Rev. Abraham Choi, who secretly filmed the exchange using a spy camera. The scandal has sparked public outrage and political turmoil, as it raises questions about Kim’s role and influence in the administration of her husband, President Yoon Suk Yeol, who faces a general election in April.
Why did Choi give Kim the bag and film her?
Choi said he initially sought a meeting with Kim out of concern for Yoon’s hardline North Korea policy, as he had a history of engagement with the North and had visited Pyongyang several times. He said while Kim was a family acquaintance, her response to discussions over possible luxury gifts – including Chanel cosmetics he claims he gave her in their first meeting – led him to believe such gifts were the only way to secure an audience. He said he became concerned about Kim’s role in the administration and decided to record their second meeting with a hidden camera in his watch. He then worked with a reporter at a left-leaning YouTube channel, Voice of Seoul, to air the video clip in November 2023.
How did the president and his party react to the scandal?
The presidential office confirmed that Kim had received the bag, but said that it was being managed and stored as a property of the government. It also denied that Kim had any involvement in state affairs or influence over her husband’s policies. However, the opposition Democratic Party and many citizens have demanded an explanation and apology from the president, as well as an investigation into the scandal. They have accused Kim of abusing her power, violating the law, and tarnishing the image of the country.
Some members of Yoon’s conservative People Power Party (PPP) have also urged the president and his wife to apologise and admit receiving the purse was, at least, inappropriate, in the hope of putting the matter to rest.
A number of PPP members have argued public sentiment is focused on Kim and not the hidden camera sting, reflecting growing concern the issue is leaving a bad impression with voters.
Tension between Yoon’s office and his party boiled over last week when a member of its leadership, Kim Kyung-yul, likened the situation to the notoriety of Marie Antoinette, the French Queen known for her profligacy.
However, Yoon has opted to remain silent and, at the weekend, pushed for the party leader to resign due to a disagreement over some members’ stance. Yoon risks creating a flash point that could end up costing PPP the April 10 election, analysts say.
What are the legal and political implications of the scandal?
According to South Korean law, public officials and their spouses are prohibited from receiving gifts worth more than 1 million won ($750) in one go, or a total of 3 million won ($2,250) within a fiscal year. They are also required to report any gifts they receive to the Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission. The law was enacted in 2016 to curb corruption and improve transparency in the public sector, after the former conservative president, Park Geun-hye, was impeached and imprisoned for a massive influence-peddling scandal involving her close friend, Choi Soon-sil. Analysts said when Kim, as the spouse of a government official, accepted the purse, which had a price tag of 3 million won ($2,250), she may have violated the anti-bribery law.
The scandal has dealt a blow to the popularity and credibility of President Yoon and his ruling PPP, which came to power in 2023 with a pledge to restore trust and integrity in the government. Yoon, a former prosecutor-general, had led a series of high-profile investigations into corruption and abuse of power by former presidents and their associates, earning him the nickname of “the bulldozer”. However, his administration has faced criticism and challenges from various sectors, including the judiciary, the media, the military, and the public health authorities, over its handling of issues such as judicial reform, press freedom, military service, and the Covid-19 pandemic.
The scandal is expected to have a significant impact on the upcoming legislative elections, which will determine the balance of power and the direction of the country for the next four years. The PPP, which currently holds a slim majority in the 300-seat National Assembly, is hoping to maintain or expand its lead over the Democratic Party, which is struggling to recover from its defeat in the 2023 presidential election. However, the scandal could erode the trust and support of the voters, especially the moderates and the young, who are more sensitive to issues of ethics and morality. The scandal could also affect the prospects of potential presidential candidates from both parties, who are eyeing the 2027 election.
What are the other controversies involving Kim?
Kim has been involved in several controversies before and after her husband became president. She has been criticized for her lavish lifestyle, her involvement in a religious cult, and her alleged plagiarism of a children’s book. She has also been compared to Marie Antoinette, the notorious French queen who was executed during the French Revolution, by some opposition leaders and netizens. Kim has maintained a low profile and rarely appeared in public since her husband became president. However, she has also been praised for her artistic and cultural activities, her support for social causes, and her warm and friendly personality. Kim also remains mired in allegations of stock price manipulation from about 12 years ago, a case for which opposition-controlled parliament voted last month to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate. PPP opposed the bill as a plot by the DP to hamper an investigation into its leader, Lee Jae-myung, and his corruption charges, which he denies. Yoon vetoed the bill as politically motivated.
(With inputs from agencies)
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