Breaking his silence, South Korea's Yoon backs wife over Dior bag scandal, asserting that she acted out of kindness and was ensnared in a "hidden camera sting." In an unusual move for the typically media-shy leader, Yoon suggests that first lady Kim Keon-hee is a victim of politically motivated entrapment, to tarnish the couple's reputation ahead of the upcoming critical parliamentary elections in April.
South Korea's President Yoon Suk-yeol and his wife Kim Keon-hee arrive in the U.K. in November 2023
President Yoon Suk Yeol of South Korea staunchly defended his wife, Kim Keon Hee, in the face of a luxury handbag scandal that has ignited public frustration and strained relations within his own party. The controversy surrounds a Christian Dior handbag, valued at approximately $2,250, gifted to the first lady by Korean-American pastor Choi Jae-young in September 2022. The pastor recorded the exchange with a hidden camera, releasing the footage in late November.
President Yoon, breaking his months-long silence on the matter, fell short of offering an apology and instead labeled the criticism directed at him and his wife as "political maneuvering." The incident has cast a shadow over the upcoming parliamentary election in April.
Public sentiment, as reflected in polls, indicates that most South Koreans are demanding an apology from the first lady and an explanation from the president. Even within his conservative People Power Party, some members have called for the first lady to express remorse.
In a televised interview with the government-run broadcaster KBS, President Yoon acknowledged it was "regretful" that his wife didn't sever ties with the pastor, citing the familial connection. However, he emphasized the challenge for a president or first lady to treat anyone coldly, avoiding a direct response to claims that Choi had repeatedly sought meetings and resorted to lavish gifts.
President Yoon pledged that his wife would "act more resolutely" in the future, dismissing the controversy as a politically timed attack due to the release of the secretly filmed footage more than a year after the incident and shortly before a critical election.
Critics expressed disappointment with Yoon's response, with the main opposition Democratic Party asserting that his dismissal of the first lady's actions muddied the moral standards expected of public officials. The DP accused Yoon of avoiding the media by choosing a pre-recorded, exclusive interview with KBS, suspected by some to be increasingly government-friendly, rather than an open press conference.
Yoon's handling of the scandal and his avoidance of traditional New Year press conferences have contributed to a dip in his approval rating below 30%, according to a recent Gallup Korea poll. "Poor communication" ranked second among the reasons cited by respondents, marking a challenging period for the president as he navigates the fallout from the luxury handbag controversy.
President Yoon Suk Yeol addressed the scandal enveloping First Lady Kim Keon Hee, acknowledging the seismic impact it has had on South Korean politics. This revelation comes approximately two months after the release of a clandestinely recorded video capturing Kim receiving a Christian Dior purse valued at 3 million won ($2,260).
However, amidst his disclosure, President Yoon did not shy away from acknowledging the regrettable nature of his wife's actions as captured in the hidden camera footage. The admission adds a nuanced layer to the unfolding controversy, leaving South Korea awaiting further developments in the aftermath of the president's candid remarks.