The first lady and the Dior pouch: a political crisis grips South Korea

A scandal involving the president’s wife has become a major issue for his party ahead of a crucial parliamentary election

The president was grappling with a slowing economy, a deadly crowd crush and nuclear threats from a belligerent neighbour. Then came a much more personal scandal: spy cam footage that showed his wife accepting a $2,200 Dior pouch as a gift.

It has quickly escalated into one of the biggest political crises for president Yoon Suk Yeol of South Korea, who has made his mark in foreign policy by aligning his country more closely with the United States and Japan but has been bogged down by controversies at home, many of them involving the first lady, Kim Keon Hee.

The video of Kim, which emerged late last year, has caused a rift between Yoon and one of his most trusted lieutenants. It has roiled his political party – one senior member called on Kim to apologise and compared her to Marie Antoinette. And, polls show, it has become a significant issue before crucial parliamentary elections in an increasingly polarised political atmosphere.

For nearly two years, Kim has challenged how this deeply patriarchal society views the role of the presidential spouse. Unlike past first ladies, who typically remained in the shadow of their husband, she has revelled in media attention and even publicly pushed Yoon’s government to ban the breeding and butchering of dogs for human consumption. She has talked about Yoon’s devotion to her, saying in 2022 that he had vowed to cook for her and “kept that promise for the past decade”.


But Kim has also frequently courted controversy, sometimes in ways that, critics say, highlight her undue influence on the government.

In 2021, when Yoon, a former prosecutor, was campaigning for the presidency, Kim apologised for inflating her resumé to promote her art-exhibition business. Then came the release of conversations with a reporter, who secretly recorded Kim suggesting that she was deeply involved in her husband’s campaign. She called Yoon “a fool” who “can’t do anything without me”. She also declared that she would retaliate against unfriendly media “if I take power”.

The video was taken in September 2022 by a Korean American pastor named Choi Jae-young with a camera hidden inside a wristwatch

Kim has also faced allegations that she was involved in a stock price manipulation scheme before Yoon’s election. In December, the opposition-controlled parliament passed a bill that would have mandated a special prosecutor to investigate the claims. Yoon (63), who like Kim (51) has denied the accusations, vetoed the bill.

Yoon, who has said his “happiest memory” was of marrying Kim in 2012, has not been able to move on from the Dior footage.

The video was taken in September 2022 by a Korean American pastor named Choi Jae-young with a camera hidden inside a wristwatch. The first news report of the episode came more than a year later, from a left-leaning YouTube channel called the Voice of Seoul, the same outlet that released Kim’s chat with a reporter.

The footage shows Choi visiting Kim in her personal office outside the presidential compound and presenting her with the gift.

“Why do you keep bringing these?” Kim is heard saying. “Please, you don’t need to do this.”

Choi advocates friendly relations between North and South Korea, while Yoon has taken a more aggressive stance toward the North. He said he got to know Kim when Yoon was running for president and received an invitation to Yoon’s inauguration in May 2022. He visited Kim’s office a month later to thank her and said he gave her a $1,300 Chanel cosmetics gift set.

Choi said that although he had asked to meet the first lady several times, he was granted an audience only twice and only when he let her know in advance that he was bringing expensive gifts

During that meeting, Choi said that he overheard a conversation in which Kim appeared to be playing a role in the appointment of a senior government official. He said that is when he decided to “expose” her. A Voice of Seoul reporter provided him with the spy cam and the cloud blue calfskin Dior pouch, and Choi sent a photo of the Dior bag to Kim, asking for another meeting.

Choi said that although he had asked to meet the first lady several times, he was granted an audience only twice and only when he let her know in advance that he was bringing expensive gifts. Government officials and their spouses are banned from accepting a gift worth more than $750 even if no potential conflict of interest is involved.

“The gift was a ticket to an audience with her,” Choi said.

In the video, Kim also expressed her desire to “involve myself actively in South-North Korean relations”, raising fears that she was overstepping her role.

As the scandal has raged, Kim has avoided public appearances for 1½ months. 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 a wife’s role” if Yoon was elected. But during a rare interview, with Artnet News last year, she signalled a shift, saying that she wanted to become “a K-culture salesperson” and support Yoon and his government in “cultural diplomacy.”

In the conversations recorded by Choi and Voice of Seoul, she appeared to deny claims of wrongdoing, characterising them as political smear campaigns.

Some officials from Yoon’s People Power Party have accused Choi of setting a “trap” for Kim and timing the release of the video to influence the April election. They have also said that Kim has not used the bag, which has been stored in a presidential repository.

A majority of South Koreans, in surveys, say it was inappropriate for Kim to accept the pouch and say they want an investigation and an explanation from Yoon.

‘The conservatives of this country can no longer carry the Kim Keon Hee risk,’ said a columnist in the conservative daily Dong-A Ilbo

“This is an explosive issue,” said Ahn Byong-jin, a political scientist at Kyung Hee University in Seoul, because it reminds South Koreans of the recurring corruption that has disgraced most of the country’s former presidents.

Some members of Yoon’s party have demanded an apology from Kim as damage control. The opposition accused Kim of influence-peddling and “manipulating government affairs.” Yoon, they added, was being excessively 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 faulted by his allies in the media.

“The conservatives of this country can no longer carry the Kim Keon Hee risk,” said a columnist in the conservative daily Dong-A Ilbo.

With pressure mounting, the chairman of the People’s Power Party, Kim Gi-hyeon, stepped down. Yoon replaced him with a close ally, Han Dong-hoon. But Han has appeared to criticise the administration’s handling of the scandal and appointed the senior official who went on to compare the first lady to Marie Antoinette, a criticism that resonated widely among the public.

Yoon then demanded Han’s resignation, according to local media, but by last week the two men appeared to have struck an uneasy truce.

Their handling of the scandal has shown how much influence Kim Keon Hee wields within Yoon’s office, political analysts said. Political scientist Ahn said this is why South Koreans joke that “there are two VIPs in Yoon’s office and VIP No1 is Kim Keon Hee”.

– This article originally appeared in The New York Times.