A Lunar New Year special exclusive interview of South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol aired on February 7. It was pre-recorded, leaving ample room for editing. The talk was more or less a rehashing of questions the public was already familiar with.
Still, it offered a rare glimpse into not just the interior of the presidential office in Yongsan, Seoul, but also Yoon’s personal life. The president walked the anchor through wood furniture of dark cherry colors, red carpets, geometrical latticeworks, and colossal folding screens. Yoon stopped before a glass-paneled bookcase, an antique hand-me-down from his late father, and a black-and-white photo of them together on a boat, for some childhood stories.
But bonhomie cracked a little when, in the second half of the 100-minute-long chat, the anchor said, “I can’t speculate about what you two [president and the first lady] talk about, but I think you may have talked about this, the so-called pouch controversy.”
He was referring to spy cam footage that surfaced last November, in which First Lady Kim Keon-hee accepted a $2,200 Dior pouch from an acquaintance. South Korea’s anti-graft act prohibits public officials, including their spouses, from receiving gifts worth more than around $750 at a time.
The fallout was great and has hardly dissipated. If anything, the Yoon administration has fanned the flames.
At first, the presidential office kept mum about the incident – in December, it told reporters that “we’re not going to answer that.” The nonchalance was understandable since the legality of the matter seemed to favor Kim. The anti-graft act stipulates the consequences for public officials pocketing illegal gifts – fines or other heavier criminal sanctions. Yet, there’s no clause that effects penalties for spouses. Meanwhile, public officials can be punished if they fail to report their spouses to the authorities. But even this doesn’t apply if the officials didn’t have any knowledge of gifts having changed hands.
Some argued that Yoon should have reported his wife after the video emerged because, however much he could have feigned ignorance before, he (and everyone else) had knowledge of the gift. In January, however, the government said that it had consigned the designer calfskin bag to the national treasury as part of the presidential archives, although for any goods to be labeled so, they have to have been received during events of official duty and by the president themselves or their representatives. The government narrative was that the bag was never an item exchanged for personal favors, so there was no case for graft.
Normally, the Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission looks into matters of graft and improper solicitation, determines the cause for investigation, and entrusts the matter to law enforcement agencies. So far, the Commission hasn’t lifted a finger. In the meantime, the ruling People Power Party (PPP) has held that the first lady was rather a victim of an unethical tort, thus not liable for a criminal charge. Debate over the legality and morality of undercover reporting followed and is still raging.
Choi Jae-young, a Korean American pastor, used to know Kim’s late father in their mutual hometown. He had advised Kim on inter-Korean relations while Yoon was campaigning for the presidency in early 2022. Choi and Kim seemed to have cultivated a close relationship. Choi was invited to Yoon’s presidential inauguration and a highly exclusive social banquet.
According to Choi, he visited the first lady in her office in June 2022 to give her a Chanel cosmetics set worth $1,300. He alleged that Kim delighted in accepting it. It was on this occasion that he said he overheard a conversation in which Kim appeared to be influencing a decision to appoint a senior government official.
Choi realized that if Kim had a say over state affairs, receiving presents could lead to political favors, therefore constituting a bribe. Together with an investigative media outlet, Voice of Seoul, he staged an undercover sting involving a camera hidden in a wristwatch and the Dior handbag in question.
The PPP argued that the incident is inadmissible as evidence since the sting lured Kim into a trap in an illegal, unethical practice that violates the norms of journalism. Expert opinions diverge on the matter. The legality and morality of journalistic stings hinge on the extent to which they contribute to public interests, whether or not there was another way to obtain the truth, and how much malice was present during the undercover reporting.
The opposition Democratic Party maintains that Kim has substantial influence over Yoon, dallying with politics herself, in which case, exposing her activities upholds the public interest. When Yoon was running for president, Kim told a reporter over the phone that her husband was “a fool” who “can’t do anything without me,” while also promising revenge against the media that maligned her “if I take power.” She also publicly called for a tougher stance against North Korea, and the recently passed law that bans the breeding and butchering of dogs was often hailed as the “Kim Keon-hee Law.”
As the government and the PPP went out on a limb to shield the first lady, public sentiment soured. A poll on January 24 found that 70 percent of South Koreans demanded an explanation from Yoon regarding Kim and her designer pouch. Legal questions aside, the public is not convinced that the gift exchange was ethical.
One survey revealed that South Koreans ranked “morality” first as the ideal quality for the first lady. They also expected the scope of the first lady’s involvement in public life to be limited to “social charities and to avoid politics.” At this time of soaring living costs, the first lady being enamored by designer brands is not a good look.
Gifts of fruit and long car rides to the countryside for family gatherings are the hallmark of the Lunar New Year, and this year stands out for jacked-up fruit and gas prices. Yet the public had to hear about Kim’s favorite designer brands.
When asked about the incident in the Lunar New Year interview, Yoon insisted that the whole thing was an elaborate scheme by the left. “The fact that they popped it [the video] more than a year after the incident, just before the general elections, means that it was a political maneuver,” he said. Yoon added that from now on he and his wife would draw the line more clearly when it comes to acquaintances and behave more appropriately in the future. No apology was offered.
Still, there was a tinge of regret in Yoon’s stilted smiles when the anchor broached his relationship with Han Dong-hoon, Yoon’s first justice minister and now the PPP’s de facto leader. Han, considered to be Yoon’s top aide and protégé, had been siding with the president regarding the pouch controversy, at first pretending ignorance of the matter and then blaming the left for staging a political trap.
Han shifted his stance, however, once he became the head of one of the PPP’s important committees on December 26. In January, a high-ranking PPP member compared Kim to Marie Antoinette, a French queen renowned for opulence and then beheaded during the French Revolution. He demanded Kim apologize and appease the public. Han publicly supported the member’s candidacy for a seat in the April general elections. Han also commented that the Kim incident “caused a public concern” and that the party “should see eye to eye with the public.”
Yoon flipped and asked for Han’s resignation on January 21. Han defied the president by telling the press, “I will do my job.” But their squabble ended two days later when Yoon and Han made a public show of meeting together, against the unlikely backdrop of a marketplace that had been reduced to rubble by a fire. Yoon and Han shared a private train back to Seoul and had dinner together afterward.
In attacking Kim, Han might have been following the media’s advice that a PPP victory in the April election depends on how much the party distances itself from the president, who faces hostile public opinion. Yoon and Han may have patched things up, but Yoon is left with a scar. Yoon’s party control had been formidable, shuffling the PPP’s leadership twice at his beckoning. This time, however, Han and the PPP didn’t budge.
In the Lunar New Year interview, Yoon categorically said he wouldn’t be favoring any candidates’ bid for the PPP ticket. The president recently replaced the deputy justice minister who served under Han and appointed another strong prosecutor as the new justice minister.
Meanwhile, Kim is apparently lying low. She hasn’t appeared in public since mid-December, and the first lady won’t be appearing in the presidential office’s Lunar New Year greeting clip. Yoon’s Lunar New Year interview has not been warmly received by the public, either. It might be a discomforting holiday season for the couple.