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Why a scandal over a Dior handbag is consuming a key U.S. ally

The Dior handbag costs some $2,000, but South Korea’s leader could pay a much higher price for the political scandal it has set off.

This crucial U.S. ally has been rocked by deepening fallout from hidden camera footage that appeared to show the country’s first lady accepting the luxury item as a gift. The incident has left President Yoon Suk Yeol facing mounting public pressure that could damage his right-wing party’s chances in crucial legislative elections that come amid rising threats from North Korea.

The video appeared to show first lady Kim Keon Hee accepting a blue-gray purse worth 3 million won ($2,250) from a Korean American pastor, the Rev. Choi Jae Young, during a visit in September 2022. It was secretly filmed by the pastor — an advocate of friendlier relations with the North, toward which Yoon has taken a hard-line approach — and first released by a left-wing YouTube news channel in November. 

But the video has re-emerged in recent days to dominate the country’s polarized political landscape. 

One of the leading members in Yoon’s own People Power Party, Han Dong-hoon, also joined calls for the public’s concerns to be addressed.

South Korea Dior Bag
A Lady Dior pouch in cloud blue, which costs around $2000, similar to that which is reported to have been gifted to the first lady of South Korea, Kim Keon Hee. Dior

On Thursday, the floor leader of the main opposition Democratic Party (DP) called for prosecutors to launch a formal probe into the allegations. 

“What the first lady has done has sparked the public anger,” Bae Jong Chan, CEO of Insight K Insitute, a Seoul-based think tank, told NBC News. This fury “is going to last and impact the general election,” he said in a phone interview.

Yoon won the 2022 presidential election, but his PPP is in the minority in parliament, which is controlled by the rival DP. The controversy now threatens to undermine his standing and his agenda.

Yoon’s disapproval rating climbed to 63% from 58% in a weekly poll by Gallup Korea that was released Friday. A poll released by the Korean television station YTN on Wednesday found that 69% of respondents believed that Yoon should offer a public explanation. Other polls have shown strong public support for the suggestion that Kim acted inappropriately.

“The president’s office has explained that the real issue here is that the whole thing has been set up with bad intentions and that it was a deliberate trap,” Bae said. 

“But the explanation is not enough to soothe the public’s anger. Even though what happened may have been a trap, the video still showed the first lady accepting the luxury bag,” he added.

Choi, the pastor, said in an interview that he met with Kim twice at the office of her art exhibition company, Covana Contents, in hopes of having conversations with her about Yoon’s tough policies toward the North.  

Since Yoon was elected in 2022, Seoul has bolstered its relationship with the United States while inter-Korean relations have deteriorated.

Choi said he brought Chanel cosmetics worth 1.8m won ($1,350) to Kim on his first visit to the company, adding that he was surprised that she did not decline the gift.

In the same visit, “I overheard her abusing power by giving favor to someone over a government job,” said Choi, who lectured in North Korea as a scholar and visited the country multiple times. “It was then that I decided that I need to get the evidence to expose her meddling in the government affairs to the public and stop her once and for all.”

“My intention was not focused on exposing the first lady accepting the Dior bag but exposing how she was abusing her position for her vested interests by meddling with government appointments,” he added.

NBC News has not independently verified his claims. Yoon’s office declined NBC News’ request for comment, saying it had no information to share at this time. 

Supporters of Yoon said the public should focus more on the role of Choi and what they say was a trap.

“It is very important to remember the context, which is that a pro-North Korea pastor deliberately set up a trap with a spy camera because the whole matter cannot be explained without this,” Ho Joon-suk, a spokesperson for the emergency response committee of the PPP, said in a phone interview.

“I believe that there are two important things that can be done,” he said. “First, we need to explain the whole thing with minute details and secondly, we need to resolve public concern that such things will not be repeated.” 

It is not the first time that the first lady has been involved in controversy. 

The opposition-controlled parliament decided last month to investigate Kim’s alleged involvement in stock market manipulation 12 years ago. 

Yoon’s party rejected the bill, saying that it was a political attempt to drive people’s attention away from corruption probes into the opposition party leader, which he has rejected.

The first lady also issued a public apology after being accused of plagiarism in her doctoral thesis and falsification of professional experience.

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