The president was grappling with a slowing financial system, 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 rapidly escalated into one of many largest political crises for President Yoon Suk Yeol of South Korea, who has made his mark in international coverage by aligning his nation extra intently with the United States and Japan however has been slowed down by controversies at residence, lots of them involving the primary woman, Kim Keon Hee.
The video of Ms. Kim, which emerged late final 12 months, has induced a rift between Mr. Yoon and one in all his most trusted lieutenants. It has roiled his political party — one senior member known as on Ms. Kim to apologize and in contrast her to Marie Antoinette. And, polls present, it has change into a big subject forward of essential parliamentary elections in an more and more polarized political ambiance.
For practically two years, Ms. Kim has challenged how this deeply patriarchal society views the position of the presidential partner. Unlike previous first women, who sometimes 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 prepare dinner for her and “saved that promise for the previous decade.”
But Ms. Kim has additionally ceaselessly courted controversy, typically 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 known as Mr. Yoon “a idiot” who “can’t do something with out me.” She additionally declared that she would retaliate in opposition to 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 may have mandated a particular prosecutor to analyze the claims. Mr. Yoon, 63, who like Ms. Kim, 51, has denied the accusations, vetoed the invoice.
Mr. Yoon, who has stated his “happiest reminiscence” was of marrying Ms. Kim in 2012, has not been in a position to transfer on from the Dior footage.
The video was taken in September 2022 by a Korean American pastor named Choi Jae-young with a digicam hidden inside a wristwatch. The first information report of the episode got here greater than a 12 months later, from a left-leaning YouTube channel known 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 present.
“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 stated he obtained to know Ms. Kim when Mr. Yoon was working for president and obtained an invite to Mr. Yoon’s inauguration in May 2022. He visited Ms. Kim’s workplace a month later to thank her and stated he gave her a $1,300 Chanel cosmetics present set.
During that assembly, Mr. Choi stated that he overheard a dialog through which Ms. Kim seemed to be enjoying a task within the appointment of a senior authorities official. He stated 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 an additional assembly.
Mr. Choi stated that though he had requested to fulfill the primary woman a number of occasions, he was granted an viewers solely twice and solely when he let her know prematurely that he was bringing costly items. Government officers and their spouses are banned from accepting a present value greater than $750 even when no potential battle of curiosity is concerned.
“The present was a ticket to an viewers together with her,” Mr. Choi stated.
In the video, Ms. Kim additionally expressed her want to “contain myself actively in South-North Korean relations,” elevating fears that she was overstepping her position.
As the scandal has raged, Ms. Kim has averted public appearances for one and a half months. Mr. Yoon’s workplace, when requested if the president and Ms. Kim had any touch upon the matter, stated that it had “nothing to share.”
Ms. Kim has not publicly commented on the varied allegations in opposition to her since her 2021 apology, when she stated she would “stick with a spouse’s position” if Mr. Yoon was elected. But throughout a uncommon interview, with Artnet News final 12 months, she signaled a shift, saying that she wished to change into “a Ok-culture salesperson” and help Mr. Yoon and his authorities in “cultural diplomacy.”
In 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 People Power Party have accused Mr. Choi of setting a “lure” for Ms. Kim and timing the discharge of the video to affect the April election. They have additionally stated that Ms. Kim has not used the bag, which has been saved in a presidential repository.
A majority of South Koreans, in surveys, say it was inappropriate for Ms. Kim to just accept the pouch and say they need an investigation and a proof from Mr. Yoon.
“This is an explosive subject” as a result of it reminds South Koreans of the recurring corruption that has disgraced many of the nation’s former presidents, stated Ahn Byong-jin, a political scientist at Kyung Hee University in Seoul.
Some members of Mr. Yoon’s party have demanded an apology from Ms. Kim as harm 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 expenses in opposition to 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,’” stated a columnist within the conservative every day Dong-A Ilbo.
With strain mounting, the chairman of the P.P.P., Kim Gi-hyeon, stepped down. Mr. Yoon changed him with a detailed ally, Han Dong-hoon. But Mr. Han has appeared to criticize the administration’s dealing with of the scandal and appointed the senior official who went on to match Ms. Kim to Marie Antoinette, a criticism that resonated widely among the public.
Mr. Yoon then demanded Mr. Han’s resignation, in accordance with 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 stated. This is why South Koreans joke, Mr. Ahn stated, that “there are two V.I.P.s in Yoon’s workplace and V.I.P. No. 1 is Kim Keon Hee.”