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South Korea's president calls handbag scandal 'political maneuvering' by his critics

In this image released Feb. 7, 2024, by the Office of the President of South Korea, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol gives a pre-recorded interview to the KBS network at the presidential office, on Sunday, Feb. 4, 2024, in Seoul, South Korea.
AP
In this image released Feb. 7, 2024, by the Office of the President of South Korea, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol gives a pre-recorded interview to the KBS network at the presidential office, on Sunday, Feb. 4, 2024, in Seoul, South Korea.

SEOUL, South Korea – President Yoon Suk Yeol of South Korea has defended his wife over a luxury handbag scandal, stopping short of apologizing and instead calling the criticism leveled at him and his wife as "political maneuvering."

His remarks came after a monthslong silence on an issue that has frustrated the public and stirred tension with his own party ahead of a parliamentary election in April.

First lady Kim Keon Hee accepted a Christian Dior handbag valued at about $2,250 from a Korean-American pastor in September 2022. The pastor, Choi Jae-young, recorded the scene with a hidden camera and released the footage in late November.

A majority of South Koreans have demanded an apology from the first lady and an explanation from the president, polls show. Some members of the ruling conservative People Power Party also called on the first lady to express remorse.

But in a televised interview with the government-run broadcaster KBS this week, Yoon only said it is "regretful" that his wife "couldn't cold-heartedly cut off" the pastor, who had ties with her family. He added that it is difficult for a president or a first lady to treat anyone coldly.

The pastor earlier said he had requested meetings with Kim many times but was granted one only when he sent pictures of lavish gifts in advance.

President Yoon, who formerly served as South Korea's top prosecutor, did not address such claims or whether Kim accepted Choi's gifts in violation of the country's anti-graft laws.

He instead vowed that his wife will "act more resolutely" in the future, while arguing that releasing the secretly filmed footage more than a year after the incident and shortly before a key election amounts to "political maneuvering."

Yoon's critics expressed disappointment at his long-awaited response to the scandal. A spokesperson for the main opposition Democratic Party criticized Yoon's dismissal of the first lady's action muddies the moral standards expected of public officials.

The DP also accused Yoon of sidestepping the media by offering his answers through a pre-recorded, exclusive interview with KBS – which some suspect is becoming increasingly government-friendly – instead of an open press conference.

In his nearly two years in office, Yoon has skipped new year press conferences that his predecessors routinely held. His last and only solo press conference was in August 2022.

In last week's Gallup Korea poll, Yoon's approval rating dipped below 30% for the first time in nine months. Among the reasons respondents cited, "poor communication" ranked second.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Se Eun Gong