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[KH Explains] How Dior bag footage shook Korean politics

A Korean American pastor claims he wanted to expose first lady Kim Keon Hee abusing power via YouTube footage

By Jung Min-kyung

Published : Jan. 23, 2024 - 14:47

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Democratic Party of Korea Rep. Hwang Un-ha speaks as the controversial video footage of first lady Kim Keon Hee accepting a Christian Dior bag from a pastor is being shown in the background during a meeting of the National Policy Committee at the National Assembly in Seoul on Monday. (Yonhap) Democratic Party of Korea Rep. Hwang Un-ha speaks as the controversial video footage of first lady Kim Keon Hee accepting a Christian Dior bag from a pastor is being shown in the background during a meeting of the National Policy Committee at the National Assembly in Seoul on Monday. (Yonhap)

When a YouTube video of South Korea's first lady receiving a Dior handbag went viral last year, it initially made few waves in mainstream news media.

In the weeks before April's general election, the footage has become a wedge that is straining relationships among People Power Party lawmakers, as well as a piece of political ammunition for the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea.

Opposition lawmakers have been raising their suspicions that first lady Kim Keon Hee violated anti-graft legislation that forbids public officials and their spouses from receiving gifts valued at one million won ($748) at a time or a total of three million in a single year from the same person.

Article 8 of the Improper Solicitation And Graft Act states that no public servant and his or her spouse "shall accept, request, or promise to receive any money, goods, etc. exceeding one million won at a time or three million won in a fiscal year from the same person." An explanation offered by the Anti-Corruption & Civil Rights Commission regarding the matter in 2022 says that the public servant is required to file a report with the government once they realize his or her spouse has received such gifts exceeding one million won. If they fail to do so, they could face a maximum of a three-year prison term or a fine of up to 30 million won. But the legislation adds that if they manage to return or relinquish the ownership of the gift "without hesitation" they are not subjected to the punishment.

The footage, which was edited and uploaded by liberal news outlet Voice of Seoul on Nov. 27, first shows a Korean-American pastor named Choi Jae-young visiting a Christian Dior store to purchase the handbag in question. Then the camera zooms in on the purchased bag’s invoice, showing that it’s valued at 3 million won.

Kim is featured in the 86-minute video for less than a minute, as the rest of the video is filled with commentaries and discussions among panels. Wearing a casual T-shirt, she asks Choi, who visited her at the headquarters of her company Covana Contents located in southern Seoul, “Why do you keep bringing me these things?”

The box of the Dior handbag is shown perched up on the coffee table between Kim and Choi next to glasses filled with water, but the video does not show Kim accepting the gift. It was revealed that Kim had accepted the gift through a statement released by the presidential office and ruling party which said the bag was “being managed and stored as a property of the government.”

The footage was filmed with a spy cam in September last year, Choi admitted through a press conference held at the National Assembly on Monday. Choi said he was able to meet Kim because he shared an acquaintance with her father.

Choi claimed that he decided to film the video to expose how Kim was abusing her power as the first lady.

“It all started from witnessing Kim naming a ranking official at the Financial Services Commission, first-hand, (so casually in a private setting),” Choi said.

He claimed that Kim was abusing the “blind spots made in the absence of the first lady’s office, senior secretary for civil affairs and the independent inspector general.” She has “privatized and monopolized all systems in the presidential office,” he added.

On criticisms that he used a spy cam in the process, Choi responded, “how else would we know what’s actually happening” in the presidential office.

The controversy surrounding the luxury bag footage has become a political “hot potato” ahead of the upcoming election.

Ruling party lawmakers have been divided over whether Kim should make a public apology over the matter to win back voters' support. People Power Party Rep. Kim Kyung-yul had even compared Kim to Marie Antoinette, the infamous last queen of France in the 18th century before the French Revolution, in a YouTube interview last week. He later apologized for his comments.

Meanwhile, People Power Party Chair Han Dong-hoon on Monday confirmed he had rejected the presidential office’s request that he step down from his current leadership position. The request from the presidential office came as Han adopted a flexible stance towards the Dior bag issue, saying the luxury bag controversy “could be a matter of public concern,” when speaking to reporters at a party policy event last week. He added that the presidential office could have better handled the issue, but said the whole situation was “a planned setup using a spy cam.”