The Korea Herald


Pressure mounting on Yoon to address first lady's bag scandal

By Son Ji-hyoung

Published : Jan. 28, 2024 - 16:01

    • Link copied

This photo shows first lady Kim Keon Hee sending a prayer at a Catholic church in Sorokdo island in South Jeolla Province during her visit there in November. (Presidential office) This photo shows first lady Kim Keon Hee sending a prayer at a Catholic church in Sorokdo island in South Jeolla Province during her visit there in November. (Presidential office)

President Yoon Suk Yeol is facing mounting pressure to clarify his stance regarding the revelation of an alleged graft case involving first lady Kim Keon Hee.

A Gallup Korea's poll on Friday showed that 63 percent of South Korean people disapproved of Yoon's performance in the fourth week of January, up 5 percentage points from the week before.

Yoon's disapproval rating has hit its highest point in nine months since April 2023, when his remarks suggested that the past during Japan's colonial occupation of the Korean Peninsula in the early 20th century, including forced labor conscription, should be left behind. His approval rating also came to 31 percent, his lowest in three months.

Controversy surrounding Kim's alleged breach of the Improper Solicitations Act, and Yoon's poor communication with the public, were two of the three major reasons respondents to a recent poll gave for their disapproval of Yoon's performance, along with high costs of living.

Yoon has reportedly been considering a televised interview with major TV network KBS, drawing speculation that he could be either be preparing to explain his stance or give a public apology for the first lady's actions.

KBS is currently headed by Park Min, whom the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea has characterized as a "long-time friend" of Yoon who is politically biased. This characterization emerged as soon as the former journalist, who has no TV experience and was previously associated with the conservative local daily Munhwa Ilbo, took charge of the broadcaster in November.

The presidential office has not confirmed any plans for a media appearance by Yoon.

One expert said that the Yoon administration's claims to have been guided by the principles of "justice" and "common sense" leave him particularly vulnerable to public anger over such issues.

Yoon, formerly the prosecutor general under the former Moon Jae-in administration, was suspended from his duties in November 2020 after he began investigating an academic credentials forgery scandal related to the family of Cho Kuk. Cho was Moon's former aide as well as the justice minister at the time. Yoon resigned from his position in March 2021 and was elected president approximately one year later.

"There have been times when South Korean presidents put their policy focus on 'reviving economic vitality' or 'creating a post-authoritarian society.' Yoon prioritized the principles of 'justice and common sense,' so that every person in power, no matter how large, should be treated as he or she deserved," said Eom Ki-hong, a political science professor at Kyungpook National University.

"Now, what has happened is he is going against his core values."

This turn of events comes as footage of Kim receiving a Christian Dior luxury handbag was revealed by the Voice of Seoul news outlet in November. The outlet filmed Korean-American pastor Choi Jae-young buying the handbag worth 3 million won ($2,250) at a Dior store and gifting the bag to Kim in September 2022. Voice of Seoul sued Kim for the allegation of having accepted graft in December based on the filmed occasion.

South Korea in 2016 made it a criminal offense for public officials and their spouses to accept gifts, even when no favor was given or sought in return. A gift in exchange for a favor was already considered a bribe.

Under the anti-graft law, also known as the Kim Young-ran Law, a public servant might face up to three years of imprisonment or a 30 million won fine if his or her spouse was caught receiving a gift worth over 1 million won.

The same news outlet in December was ordered to pay 10 million won -- in a ruling upheld by a high court -- for secretly recording multiple phone calls in 2021 with Kim without Kim's consent and revealing it to the public in January 2022, during which time Yoon was vying for the presidency. Kim had sought 100 million won in compensation.

Moreover, pastor Choi claimed that he had seen Kim use her power to interfere in state affairs, at a press conference in the National Assembly on Jan. 22.


PPP divided

The first lady's Dior handbag controversy began making headlines here after the issue triggered a party divide in the ruling People Power Party.

Some pro-Yoon faction lawmakers in the party believed a public apology could bring about a bigger political disaster at a critical time when the general election is less than three months away.

Pro-Yoon lawmakers, including Rep. Lee Chul-gyu and Rep. Lee Yong, have argued that the first lady fell prey to illegal filming and therefore did not need to apologize. These arguments came in response to liberal civic activist-turned-conservative Kim Kyung-yul's argument that first lady Kim needs to "open up about the issue."

Korean-American pastor Choi Jae-young speaks during a press conference held at the National Assembly in Seoul on Jan. 22. (Yonhap) Korean-American pastor Choi Jae-young speaks during a press conference held at the National Assembly in Seoul on Jan. 22. (Yonhap)

The differing views over the first lady within the party invited a new controversy over whether the conservative party's interim leader Han Dong-hoon had abused his power to favor the ex-activist over others in choosing who should run for a seat in Mapo-gu, Seoul against seasoned lawmaker Rep. Jung Chung-rae of the Democratic Party of Korea.

Han acknowledged that Yoon's office had asked him to resign from the party's interim leader post on Jan. 22 -- a request that he rejected. This apparent conflict between Yoon and Han, who had worked together as public prosecutors for two decades, showed signs of easing after both of them visited a market badly damaged in a fire in Seocheon, South Chungcheong Province, and met there.

"A public statement from Yoon over (first lady's graft scandal) is unlikely to trigger a rebound in his approval rating, but it at least could stop the situation from getting worse (for the time being)," said Lee Jun-han, professor of political science at Incheon National University.

A statement by the president in any form could prompt a series of calls for more public apologies over additional allegations of the first lady's wrongdoing -- before Yoon came to power. For example, Yoon vetoed a bill in early January to enable the majority-opposition National Assembly to launch a special investigation into Kim's alleged involvement in stock manipulation, as law enforcement did not find evidence that the first lady was involved in the white-collar crime dating back a decade.

Eom of Kyungpook National University said the graft case holds significance given that the incident happened after Yoon came to office, unlike other allegations surrounding Kim, as well as surrounding her mother, who is currently serving a jail term over document forgery concerning a property transaction.

"Previously, (the opposition bloc) has taken issue with Kim's past deeds. The handbag issue revolves around what happened after Yoon's term began," Eom said.


Family matters

Few South Korean presidents have been immune to corruption scandals stemming from the misconduct of their family members.

Former President Lee Myung-bak in July 2012 apologized after his elder brother and former lawmaker Lee Sang-deuk was detained for alleged bribery.

President Kim Dae-jung's apology in June 2002 came immediately after two of his sons were detained for bribery suspicions in a month. His predecessor Kim Young-sam also expressed an immediate public apology in February 1997 over his bribery allegations against his son.

However, the high-profile scandal, which in 2017 impeached ex-President Park Geun-hye, was laid bare after Park's confidante Choi Seo-won -- then known as Choi Soon-sil -- was revealed to have gained access to classified documents, meddled in other state affairs and used her power to take personal gains. Park was never married.

"(Yoon's office) has apparently been procrastinating (over when to address Kim's matter)," Lee of Incheon National University said. "(Further procrastination) will prompt a situation in which Yoon will not be able to escape from trouble by any means."

No president has yet provided an explanation to the public about a controversy involving their spouse.

Before Yoon came into office, Moon was the only president who had escaped any significant scandal over the alleged misdeeds of family members. A legal fight is underway over whether "special activity expenses" of the presidential office during Moon's term should be disclosed to see if the expenses were for unauthorized clothing purchases of Moon's wife, Kim Jung-sook. An appellate ruling is scheduled for Thursday.