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[Editorial] The handbag quandary

Jan. 25, 2024 - 05:30 By Korea Herald

First lady Kim Keon Hee’s alleged acceptance of a designer handbag from a Korean American pastor in September 2022, caught on spy cam, has become something the presidential office must address.

The pastor, Choi Jae-young, conspired with a YouTube channel called Voice of Seoul to film his meeting with Kim using a camera on his watch, without informing Kim that she was being filmed.

Choi said in a press conference at the National Assembly on Monday that he decided to “collect evidence” after watching Kim speak on the phone about appointing someone on the Financial Services Commission during their first meeting in June 2022.

Choi claimed that Kim was taking advantage of “blind spots made by the absence of the first lady’s office, senior secretary for civil affairs or an independent inspector general.” She has “privatized and monopolized all systems in the presidential office,” he said.

The Christian Dior bag that Choi gave Kim has been designated as a “gift to be returned,” and is now in storage at the presidential office. President Yoon Suk Yeol’s office, however, has not said when the bag was placed in storage.

Article 8 of the Improper Solicitation and Graft Act prohibits a spouse of a public servant from receiving, in connection with the duties of the public servant, money or goods exceeding 1 million won at a time or 3 million won in a fiscal year from the same person. The bag was worth 3 million won.

The legal liabilities of the first lady, Choi and the YouTube channel aside, the presidential office has the political need to deal with the elephant in the room, with less than 80 days left until the April 10 general election. The issue flared up even more after a discord between Yoon and the ruling People Power Party’s new interim leader Han Dong-hoon was made public on Sunday evening.

While Yoon’s office has continued to bury its head in the sand about the handbag case, Han acknowledged last week that there are “aspects that the public would worry about.”

Kim Kyung-ryul, a member of the ruling party’s emergency committee that Han leads, said the first lady should apologize, mentioning how Marie Antoinette’s behavior touched off people’s emotions and led to the French Revolution. Several lawmakers of the People Power Party such as Rep. Ha Tae-keung also said Kim Keon Hee should apologize.

Then came news reports that Yoon’s office asked Han to step down, which Han confirmed by saying Monday that he “rejected the demand to resign.”

The cacophony between the president and one of his most trusted former prosecutors has left a greater number of Koreans, especially supporters of the ruling party, wondering if the first lady is in fact the most powerful person in the country.

It also lends weight to widespread suspicions that she has been influencing key government appointments. One of them is Kim Seung-hee, who was fired as Yoon’s protocol secretary in October upon revelations that his 9-year-old daughter had severely assaulted an 8-year-old schoolmate in July to the extent that she required nine weeks of medical treatment.

The victim’s cornea was damaged, but on the day Kim’s wife went to her child‘s school to write a statement on the case, she changed her Kakaotalk profile image to a photo of her husband and Yoon, according to Rep. Kim Young-ho of the Democratic Party of Korea.

Kim Seung-hee, a former classmate of the first lady when she underwent a program at Korea University’s Graduate School of Media and Communication in 2009, ran an event management company and worked in Yoon’s presidential campaign team. Kim was promoted to presidential protocol secretary, a position previously held by a diplomat, just before Yoon’s state visit to the US in April last year.