(ROUNDUP) Yoon says first lady’s acceptance of luxury handbag was caused by lack of cold-heartedness

February 7, 2024

President Yoon Suk Yeol said Wednesday that first lady Kim Keon Hee failed to “cold-heartedly reject” a visitor armed with a hidden camera, speaking for the first time on allegations she accepted a luxury handbag from the man in 2022.

Yoon said in an interview with KBS TV that the bag was given to her as a “political maneuver” as it was filmed with a camera hidden inside a watch and the footage was only released last year ahead of an election year.

“The fact that she was unable to cold-heartedly reject him was the problem, if one can call it a problem, and it is a little regrettable,” he said. The interview was filmed on Sunday and aired Wednesday night.

“What’s important is not that it was a political maneuver but that we conduct ourselves by more clearly drawing the line so that such things don’t happen again.”

President Yoon Suk Yeol (L) speaks during a special interview with state-run broadcaster KBS at the presidential office in Seoul on Feb. 4, 2024, in this photo provided by the office. (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)
President Yoon Suk Yeol (L) speaks during a special interview with state-run broadcaster KBS at the presidential office in Seoul on Feb. 4, 2024, in this photo provided by the office. (PHOTO NOT FOR SALE) (Yonhap)

Yoon had come under growing pressure to address the allegations surrounding the first lady, even as his office maintained the Christian Dior bag, valued at around 3 million won (US$2,200), was given to her by a Korean American pastor in September 2022 as part of a premeditated hidden camera trap.

The issue was seen as a liability for the ruling party ahead of the April 10 parliamentary elections, as the incident occurred after Yoon took office as president in May 2022.

Yoon said in the interview that the incident took place when the couple were still living at their private apartment unit in southern Seoul, where his wife kept an office in the basement, before moving into the new presidential residence.

He suggested the pastor visited her at the office after claiming to have had ties with her late father and insisting that they meet.

“From now on, now that we have moved into the residence, not only will such things be managed well, but I think we will have to be clear so as not to cause any misunderstandings or anxieties or concerns among the people,” he said.

When asked if he has plans to appoint a special inspector charged with investigating corruption among the president’s family members or to establish an office of the private secretary to the first lady, Yoon said a special inspector must be chosen by the National Assembly, while his office is looking into creating the office for the first lady’s affairs.

But he also expressed reservations about their effectiveness in preventing such incidents.

Asked if the two fought over the handbag issue, he replied with a laugh, “Not at all.”

Yoon fielded a wide range of questions during the interview, including on inflation, education, the low birth rate, working with an opposition-controlled National Assembly, and the upcoming elections.

On North Korea, he said a summit with leader Kim Jong-un was possible, but only if it was guaranteed to produce results.

“Regardless of whether North Korea gives up its nuclear weapons or not, we can have an inter-Korean summit,” he said. “But in order to do so, a top-down format would be difficult. A summit must be held following exchanges and discussions between working-level officials, and after the agenda and outcome are prepared. Just going ahead with it could once again end as a show without any conclusion or gain.”

Yoon also said South Korea can develop its own nuclear weapons in a short period of time if it decides to do so, but going nuclear is “unrealistic” because it would entail various economic sanctions.

“If we develop nukes, we will receive various economic sanctions like North Korea does and our economy will be dealt a serious blow, and therefore, that is unrealistic and we have to thoroughly abide by the NPT,” Yoon said, referring to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Considering South Korea’s science and technology levels, Yoon said it “won’t take that long” for the country to develop nuclear weapons, but he stressed that adhering to the NPT is more in line with the country’s national interests.

On China, he dismissed criticism that his focus on strengthening ties with the United States and Japan has led to a growing rift between Seoul and Beijing.

Referring to his meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Chinese Premier Li Qiang on the sidelines of the 2022 and 2023 Group of 20 summits, respectively, Yoon said the two sides expressed their commitment to upholding the free trade system and multilateralism.

“I don’t think our basic respective principles for the running of state of affairs or external relations are different,” he said. “We don’t need to be overly concerned about the issue of South Korea-China relations.”