SEOUL, South Korea – The president faced a slowing economy, deadly crowds and nuclear threats from a belligerent neighbor.
Then came a much more personal scandal:
spy camera footage showing his wife accepting a $2,200 Dior handbag as a gift.
The scandal has quickly become one of the biggest political crises for South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, who has left his mark on foreign policy by strengthening his country's ties with the United States and Japan, but who has been embroiled in internal controversies. , many of them starring the First Lady, Kim Keon Hee.
Kim's video, which surfaced late last year, caused a rift between Yoon and one of his most trusted lieutenants.
It shook her political party: a senior member called on Kim to apologize and compared her to Marie Antoinette.
Yoon and Kim at a guide dog school in Yongin, South Korea. Kim pressured Yoon's government to ban the breeding and slaughter of dogs for human consumption.
And, according to polls, it has become a major issue ahead of crucial parliamentary elections in an increasingly polarized political environment.
For nearly two years, Kim questioned the way this deeply patriarchal society views the role of the presidential wife.
Unlike other first ladies, who tended to remain in the shadows of their husbands, she has reveled in the media attention and has even publicly pressured the Yoon government to prohibit the breeding and slaughter of dogs For human consumption.
She spoke of Yoon's devotion to her, saying in 2022 that he had promised to cook for her and “kept that promise for the past decade.”
But Kim also frequently courted controversy, sometimes in ways that critics say underscore his undue influence in government.
In 2021, when Yoon, a former prosecutor, was campaigning for president, he apologized for inflating his resume to promote his art exhibition business.
Then came conversations with a journalist, who secretly recorded Kim suggesting she was deeply involved in her husband's campaign.
He called Yoon a “fool” who “can't do anything without me.”
He also declared that he would retaliate against hostile media outlets “if I take power.”
Kim has also faced accusations of having participated in a stock price manipulation scheme before Yoon's election.
In December, the opposition-controlled Parliament passed a bill that would have tasked a special prosecutor with investigating the allegations.
Yoon, 63, who like Kim, 51, denied the allegations, vetoed the bill.
Yoon, who has said his “happiest memory” was marrying Kim in 2012, has been unable to shake the Dior images.
The video was recorded in September 2022 by a Korean-American pastor named Choi Jae-young with a camera hidden in a wristwatch.
The first news about the episode came more than a year later, through a television channel. YouTube left-leaning called Voice of Seoulthe same outlet that published Kim's talk with a journalist.
The images show Choi visiting Kim in his personal office outside the presidential complex and giving him the gift.
“Why do you keep bringing this?” Kim is heard saying.
“Please, there is no need to do this.”
Choi advocates for Friendly relationships between North and South Korea, while Yoon takes a more aggressive stance toward the North.
He said he met Kim when Yoon was a presidential candidate and received an invitation to Yoon's inauguration in May 2022.
He visited Kim's office a month later to thank him and said he gave him a $1,300 Chanel cosmetics set.
During that meeting, Choi said he overheard a conversation in which Kim appeared to be playing a role in the appointment of a top government official.
He said that's when he decided “unmask her“.
A Voice of Seoul reporter provided the spy camera and the cloud-blue lambskin Dior bag, and Choi sent a photo of the Dior bag to Kim, asking for another meeting.
Choi said that although he had asked to meet with the first lady several times, he was only granted an audience twice and only when he let her know in advance that he was going to take expensive gifts.
Government officials and their spouses are prohibited from accepting gifts of more than $750, even if there is no conflict of interest.
“The gift was a ticket to an audience with her,” Choi said.
In the video, Kim also expressed his desire to “be actively involved in relations between South Korea and North Korea,” raising fears that he was extralimitando in their functions.
Kim has avoided appearing in public for a month and a half.
Yoon's office said the President and Kim had “nothing to share” on the matter.
Kim has not publicly commented on the various allegations against her since her 2021 apology, when she said she would “stick to 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 peddler” and support Yoon and her government in “cultural diplomacy“.
In conversations recorded by Choi and Voice of Seoul, he appeared to deny allegations of wrongdoing, calling them political smear campaigns.
Some officials from Yoon's People Power Party have accused Choi of setting a “trap” for Kim and to schedule the publication of the video to influence the April elections.
They have also said that Kim has not used the portfolio, which was kept in a presidential warehouse.
In polls, most South Koreans consider it inappropriate for Kim to accept the portfolio and are calling for an investigation and an explanation from Yoon.
“This is an explosive issue” because it reminds South Koreans of the recurring corruption that has disgraced most of the country's former presidents, said Ahn Byong-jin, a political scientist at Seoul's Kyung Hee University.
Some members of Yoon's party demanded an apology from Kim as damage control.
The opposition accused Kim of influence peddling and “manipulate the affairs of the government.
Yoon, they added, was being overly protective of his wife, in stark contrast to his government's aggressive pursuit of corruption charges against Lee Jae-myung, the opposition leader.
Yoon was also criticized by his allies in the media.
“Conservatives in this country can no longer bear the 'Kim Keon Hee risk,'” said a columnist for the conservative daily Dong-A Ilbo.
Faced with mounting pressure, PPP Chairman Kim Gi-hyeon resigned.
Yoon replaced him with a close ally, Han Dong-hoon.
But Han has emerged to criticize the administration's handling of the scandal and named the top official who went so far as to compare the first lady 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 agreement. a truce.
His handling of the scandal has revealed Kim Keon Hee's influence in Yoon's office, according to political analysts.
That's why South Koreans joke, Ahn said, saying that “there are two VIPs in Yoon's office and VIP No. 1 is Kim Keon Hee.”
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