South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol has responded to allegations surrounding his wife’s acceptance of a luxury handbag, dismissing them as a “political maneuver.” He refrained from apologizing, characterizing the criticism directed at him and his wife as politically motivated.
Speaking publicly for the first time since the release of hidden camera footage depicting South Korea’s first lady, Kim Keon Hee, receiving a high-end designer handbag as a gift, President Yoon described the incident as a calculated political move.
President Yoon Suk Yeol’s response comes after months of silence amidst growing public frustration and internal party tension leading up to the parliamentary election scheduled for April.
The first lady, Kim Keon Hee, received a Christian Dior handbag valued at approximately $2,250 from Korean-American pastor Choi Jae-young in September 2022. The pastor clandestinely recorded the exchange and released the footage in late November, prompting widespread demand from the public for an apology from the first lady and clarification from President Yoon.
Despite this, President Yoon expressed regret that his wife could not sever ties with the pastor, citing their family connections, and defended the challenges a president and first lady faced in maintaining a cordial demeanor towards individuals they encounter.
President Yoon Suk Yeol emphasized the importance of establishing clear boundaries to prevent similar incidents in the future, stating that whether the situation was a political maneuver was insignificant.
He highlighted the need for his wife to act more decisively moving forward, acknowledging that the pastor who offered the Dior handbag had claimed to have familial ties with Kim’s deceased father, further complicating the handling of the gifts.
The pastor, who admitted to having requested multiple meetings with Kim before finally being granted one after sending pictures of lavish gifts, had earlier suggested that his prolonged stay in the Yoon family’s private home before their move to a new presidential residence may have contributed to the confusion surrounding the handling of the gifts.
Critics of Yoon expressed disappointment with his response, with the main opposition Democratic Party condemning his dismissal of the first lady’s actions and raising concerns about his avoidance of open press conferences in favor of pre-recorded interviews with government-aligned media outlets.
Reverend Abraham Choi, the pastor who gifted the luxury handbag to the first lady, revealed to Reuters that he aimed to express concerns about President Yoon’s aggressive North Korea policies and believed offering lavish gifts would secure a meeting with Kim Keon Hee.
Choi discreetly recorded the handover using a wristwatch, capturing Hee’s reluctance as she expressed her reservations about accepting such an extravagant present, although she did not return the handbag.
Accepting the gift constitutes a violation of South Korean law, which prohibits public officials and their spouses from accepting gifts exceeding $750 in value. Reports suggest that the handbag is being kept in compliance with relevant regulations following the public disclosure of the incident.
Amidst the controversy, President Yoon asserted during a Lunar New Year interview that he would not show favoritism towards any candidates vying for the People Power Party’s nomination.
However, the interview garnered a lukewarm reception from the public, signaling a potentially challenging holiday season for the presidential couple. Meanwhile, the first lady has maintained a low profile since mid-December, refraining from public appearances and notably absent from the presidential office’s Lunar New Year greeting clip.
Yoon’s dwindling approval ratings, dropping below 30% in a recent Gallup Korea poll, reflect growing dissatisfaction among the populace, with poor communication cited as one of the key factors contributing to his declining popularity.