A luxury Dior handbag rattles South Korea's politics A gift accepted by the country's first lady has set off very public debates about ethics and revealed ruling party divisions just weeks before legislative elections.

A luxury Dior handbag rattles South Korea's politics

South Korea's President Yoon Suk Yeol sits with his wife Kim Keon Hee, after he addressed MPs in the Royal Gallery during a visit to the Palace of Westminster on Nov. 21, 2023 in London, England. WPA Pool/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption
WPA Pool/Getty Images

South Korea's President Yoon Suk Yeol sits with his wife Kim Keon Hee, after he addressed MPs in the Royal Gallery during a visit to the Palace of Westminster on Nov. 21, 2023 in London, England.

WPA Pool/Getty Images

SEOUL, South Korea – What's dominating South Korean politics less than three months before the country's next legislative elections is not policy debates.

It's intense political infighting and personal misdeeds, epitomized last week by a clash between the ruling conservative party chief and the presidential office over a scandal involving the first lady and a luxury handbag.

Growing public discontent over the latest scandal and other suspected wrongdoings tied to the first lady highlights a dilemma for President Yoon Suk Yeol ahead of the high-stakes election.

Mishandling it could cost his party a chance to win back a majority in the parliament, and in turn, weaken Yoon's grip on his party and his government's momentum for the remainder of his five-year term. Yoon is still months away from his second anniversary in office.

First lady Kim Keon Hee was secretly filmed accepting a Christian Dior handbag worth roughly $2,250 from a U.S.-based pastor named Choi Jae-young in September 2022, a few months after her husband was sworn in as president.

Choi recorded his meeting with Kim using a camera hidden in his wristwatch and released the video in late November through Voice of Seoul, a left-leaning online media outlet. Choi said the outlet provided him with the wristwatch and the bag.

The pastor and Voice of Seoul defended the sting operation as justified, citing public interest.

Choi, who is also a Korea reunification activist, told the outlet that he first approached Kim through a messenger app to "give advice" on North Korea policies. The two bonded over their shared hometown and family ties, according to Choi.

But he said he was "appalled" by her alleged abuse of power during their first one-on-one meeting in June 2022, he said in a press conference earlier this month.

He claimed to have overheard Kim interfering in the appointment of a high-ranking official in a phone call during the meeting. He also said Kim accepted his gift of a Chanel perfume and skin care set worth $1,340 in total that day.

The current first lady has been the focus of previous allegations

South Korean law prohibits spouses of public officials from receiving a gift valued more than $750 in a single occasion if it is connected to the officials' public service. It is not clear how the law applies to Choi's alleged gifts.

The anti-graft law would also require President Yoon to return the gift and report the fact to law enforcement or anti-corruption authorities. Choi said in a recent interview that neither Kim nor the presidential office has returned the bag since the video was revealed.

The head of Voice of Seoul filed a criminal complaint against Yoon and Kim for violating the law. A major civic organization also requested a government anti-corruption agency conduct a preliminary investigation.

The revelation about the luxury handbag came in advance of this April's legislative elections. Although its proximity to a key election heightened political attention to the recent exposé, first lady Kim Keon Hee has frequently posed risks to the administration.

Accusations of resume padding emerged during Yoon's presidential race and led Kim to offer a public apology. She was also accused of academic plagiarism. She and her mother are suspected of involvement in stock price manipulation. The president recently vetoed a bill for a special counsel probe on that case. Last year, the main opposition Democratic Party accused the Yoon government of rerouting a planned expressway to benefit Kim's family.

The presidential office has either denied or kept silent on most allegations.

Criticism from within the ruling party and the public

Amid mounting condemnation from the public over the Dior bag scandal, some members of the ruling People Power Party spoke out against the first lady. Kim Gyeong-ryul, a member of the party's interim committee, compared her to Marie Antoinette and urged her to apologize. Han Dong-hoon, the former justice minister and current interim leader of the ruling party, acknowledged the scandal can be a "cause for concern" among the public and argued it needs to be seen "from the public's viewpoint."

And many South Koreans are critical of the first lady. In a recent survey conducted by Gallup Korea and Seoul Economy Daily, 56% of respondents said she should apologize for receiving the bag.

Another survey by pollster Embrain Public and news broadcaster YTN showed that nearly 70% said the president should express his position on the issue.

But Kim herself has not made any public appearance since December. And Yoon's office has yet to officially comment on the issue, save for anonymous officials quoted in local media criticizing the pastor for "trapping" the first lady.

Instead, days after the critical remarks from within the ruling party, Yoon's chief of staff demanded that Han step down as the PPP chief, a local cable broadcaster reported. While the presidential office neither confirmed nor denied such a demand, Han acknowledged it and vowed to keep his position regardless.

Yoon and Han soon appeared to be mending fences in an on-camera meeting last week and a luncheon this week. But according to party officials, the two didn't discuss the issue. Amid continued silence, the scandal that caused the dispute remains unresolved.