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27 Feb 2024 23:48
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  •   Home > News > International

    Why has a designer Dior handbag shaken up South Korean politics?

    Secret camera footage appearing to show South Korea's first lady accepting an expensive Dior handbag threatens to impact her corruption-busting husband's election campaign. And it's not even Kim Keon Hee's first scandal.

    The apparent gifting of a luxury handbag has caused a political stir in South Korea, raising questions about ethics, and the future of the ruling party in April's upcoming elections.

    South Korea's first lady, Kim Keon Hee, is at the centre of the so-called "Dior bag scandal", after the luxury item was allegedly gifted to her by a pastor.

    The Dior handbag, worth three million wong ($3,400) was reportedly given to Ms Kim in her and President Yoon Suk Yeol's private home in September 2022.

    The pastor, reverend Abraham Choi, secretly filmed the exchange.

    He claimed to have had ties to Ms Kim's father, who died when she was a child, Mr Yoon said, speaking to local media in his first public address since the controversy broke.

    Mr Choi had earlier told Reuters that he initially wanted to raise concerns about Mr Yoon's hardline North Korea policies, and that offering pricey gifts seemed to be the way to secure a meeting with the first lady.

    The exchange only came to light after the hidden camera footage of Ms Kim appearing to accept the gift was released in November of 2023, in what Mr Yoon has called a "political manoeuvre" ahead of key April elections.

    Not the first lady's first scandal

    It is not the first time Ms Kim, who has not spoken publicly for over a month, has faced public scrutiny.

    During Mr Yoon's presidential campaign, she was forced to apologise for inflating her academic and career achievements and credentials.

    Ms Kim has also faced accusations of stock manipulation, with the opposition-controlled legislature passing a special bill mandating a probe that was later vetoed by her husband.

    Those claims have failed to capture the public's imagination like the handbag video, lawyer and political commentator Yoo Jung-hoon said.

    That's likely because "stock manipulation by nature involves complex legal and technical terms" not as easily grasped, he said.

    "Everyone knows Dior and there's even direct footage of the meeting, making it very straightforward for the public to digest," he said.

    The gifted bag would violate a South Korean law banning officials and their spouses from accepting gifts worth more than $US750 ($1,150).

    An official from Mr Yoon's office has told South Korea's Yonhap News Agency the gift was being "stored according to the relevant regulations".

    Scandal places president in 'self-contradiction'

    "Bribery charges involving public officials and their families are taken seriously in South Korea," said Su-kyoung Hwang, a senior lecturer in Korean Studies at the University of Sydney.

    "Considering that President Yoon Suk Yeol was a former prosecutor, renowned for his hardline stance against corruption, this scandal places him in a self-contradiction," she said.

    In 2016 the country enacted the Improper Solicitation and Graft Act, after a number of high-profile bribery cases, including one involving the deadly Sewol ferry disaster.

    Ms Hwang said that in principle, the kind of back-door lobbying which led to the scandal should be a rare occurrence, but it was especially problematic when done through the first lady. 

    "[Yoon] cannot make himself or his family an exception to the norm and remain evasive about the issue. Average South Koreans care about the idea and practice of equality before the law," she said.

    Some members of Mr Yoon's conservative People Power Party (PPP) had urged the president and his wife to apologise and admit that receiving the purse was, at least, inappropriate, in the hope of putting the matter to rest.

    The scandal has threatened to fracture the party.

    While he stopped short of apologising for the breach, Mr Yoon vowed to draw clearer lines and ensure that it does not happen again.

    Ms Hwang said the president may just have been hoping for things to blow over, but voters may not be so easy to forgive.

    Mr Yoon's approval rating fell to its lowest level in nine months after the scandal broke but has since increased slightly.

    Among the reasons for the drop, which included a lack of communication and economic issues, respondents cited the issues regarding the first lady.

    Ms Hwang emphasised that the "Dior bag scandal" was only one of the factors which may affect Mr Yoon's prospects.

    "If the issue is not addressed properly and clearly, it may have an impact on the election."


    © 2024 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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