The president was grappling with a slowing economy, a lethal crowd crush and nuclear threats from a belligerent neighbor. Then got here a way more private scandal: spy cam footage that confirmed his spouse accepting a $2,200 Dior pouch as a present.
It has shortly escalated into one of many greatest political crises for President Yoon Suk Yeol of South Korea, who has made his mark in international coverage by aligning his nation extra carefully with the US and Japan however has been slowed down by controversies at residence, a lot of them involving the primary girl, Kim Keon Hee.
The video of Ms. Kim, which emerged late final yr, has prompted a rift between Mr. Yoon and certainly one of his most trusted lieutenants. It has roiled his political social gathering — one senior member referred to as on Ms. Kim to apologize and compared her to Marie Antoinette. And, polls present, it has change into a big challenge forward of essential parliamentary elections in an increasingly polarized political atmosphere.
For practically two years, Ms. Kim has challenged how this deeply patriarchal society views the position of the presidential partner. Not like previous first girls, who usually remained within the shadow of their husband, she has reveled in media consideration and even publicly pushed Mr. Yoon’s authorities to ban the breeding and butchering of canine for human consumption. She has talked about Mr. Yoon’s devotion to her, saying in 2022 that he had vowed to cook dinner for her and “stored that promise for the previous decade.”
However Ms. Kim has additionally regularly courted controversy, generally in ways in which, critics say, spotlight her undue affect on the federal government.
In 2021, when Mr. Yoon, a former prosecutor, was campaigning for the presidency, she apologized for inflating her résumé to advertise her art-exhibition enterprise. Then got here the discharge of conversations with a reporter, who secretly recorded Ms. Kim suggesting that she was deeply concerned in her husband’s marketing campaign. She referred to as Mr. Yoon “a idiot” who “can’t do something with out me.” She additionally declared that she would retaliate towards unfriendly media “if I take energy.”
Ms. Kim has additionally confronted allegations that she was concerned in a inventory worth manipulation scheme earlier than Mr. Yoon’s election. In December, the opposition-controlled Parliament handed a invoice that will have mandated a particular prosecutor to research the claims. Mr. Yoon, 63, who like Ms. Kim, 51, has denied the accusations, vetoed the invoice.
Mr. Yoon, who has mentioned his “happiest memory” was of marrying Ms. Kim in 2012, has not been capable of transfer on from the Dior footage.
The video was taken in September 2022 by a Korean American pastor named Choi Jae-young with a digital camera hidden inside a wristwatch. The primary information report of the episode got here greater than a yr later, from a left-leaning YouTube channel referred to as the Voice of Seoul, the identical outlet that launched Ms. Kim’s chat with a reporter.
The footage reveals Mr. Choi visiting Ms. Kim in her private workplace outdoors the presidential compound and presenting her with the reward.
“Why do you retain bringing these?” Ms. Kim is heard saying. “Please, you don’t want to do that.”
Mr. Choi advocates pleasant relations between North and South Korea, whereas Mr. Yoon has taken a extra aggressive stance towards the North. He mentioned he received to know Ms. Kim when Mr. Yoon was working for president and acquired an invite to Mr. Yoon’s inauguration in Might 2022. He visited Ms. Kim’s workplace a month later to thank her and mentioned he gave her a $1,300 Chanel cosmetics reward set.
Throughout that assembly, Mr. Choi mentioned that he overheard a dialog during which Ms. Kim gave the impression to be enjoying a job within the appointment of a senior authorities official. He mentioned that’s when he determined to “expose” her. A Voice of Seoul reporter supplied him with the spy cam and the cloud blue calfskin Dior pouch, and Mr. Choi despatched a photograph of the Dior bag to Ms. Kim, asking for one more assembly.
Mr. Choi mentioned that though he had requested to satisfy the primary girl a number of instances, he was granted an viewers solely twice and solely when he let her know prematurely that he was bringing costly presents. Authorities officers and their spouses are banned from accepting a present price greater than $750 even when no potential battle of curiosity is concerned..
“The reward was a ticket to an viewers along with her,” Mr. Choi mentioned.
Within the video, Ms. Kim additionally expressed her need to “contain myself actively in South-North Korean relations,” elevating fears that she was overstepping her position.
Because the scandal has raged, Ms. Kim has averted public appearances for one and a half months. Mr. Yoon’s workplace mentioned the president and Ms. Kim had “nothing to share” on the matter.
Ms. Kim has not publicly commented on the varied allegations towards her since her 2021 apology, when she mentioned she would “persist with a spouse’s position” if Mr. Yoon was elected. However throughout a rare interview, with Artnet Information final yr, she signaled a shift, saying that she needed to change into “a Okay-culture salesperson” and assist Mr. Yoon and his authorities in “cultural diplomacy.”
Within the conversations recorded by Mr. Choi and Voice of Seoul, she appeared to disclaim claims of wrongdoing, characterizing them as political smear campaigns.
Some officers from Mr. Yoon’s Folks Energy Celebration have accused Mr. Choi of setting a “entice” for Ms. Kim and timing the discharge of the video to affect the April election. They’ve additionally mentioned that Ms. Kim has not used the bag, which has been saved in a presidential repository.
“That is an explosive challenge” as a result of it reminds South Koreans of the recurring corruption that has disgraced many of the nation’s former presidents, mentioned Ahn Byong-jin, a political scientist at Kyung Hee College in Seoul.
Some members of Mr. Yoon’s social gathering have demanded an apology from Ms. Kim as injury management. The opposition accused Ms. Kim of influence-peddling and “manipulating authorities affairs.” Mr. Yoon, they added, was being excessively protecting of his spouse, in stark distinction to his authorities’s aggressive pursuit of corruption charges towards Lee Jae-myung, the opposition chief.
Mr. Yoon was additionally faulted by his allies within the media.
“The conservatives of this nation can now not carry the ‘Kim Keon Hee danger,’” said a columnist within the conservative day by day Dong-A Ilbo.
With stress mounting, the chairman of the P.P.P., Kim Gi-hyeon, stepped down. Mr. Yoon changed him with a detailed ally, Han Dong-hoon. However Mr. Han has appeared to criticize the administration’s dealing with of the scandal and appointed the senior official who went on to check Ms. Kim to Marie Antoinette, a criticism that resonated widely among the public.
Mr. Yoon then demanded Mr. Han’s resignation, based on native media, however by final week the 2 males appeared to have caught an uneasy truce.
Their dealing with of the scandal has proven how a lot affect Ms. Kim wields inside Mr. Yoon’s workplace, political analysts mentioned. This is the reason South Koreans joke, Mr. Ahn mentioned, that “there are two V.I.P.s in Yoon’s workplace and V.I.P. No. 1 is Kim Keon Hee.”