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Yoon says first lady’s receiving of a luxury handbag is ‘regrettable,’ stops short of apology

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President Yoon Suk Yeol speaks during an interview with public broadcaster KBS at the presidential office in Seoul on Sunday. The interview was aired on Wednesday evening, ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday. [PRESIDENTIAL OFFICE]
President Yoon Suk Yeol speaks during an interview with public broadcaster KBS at the presidential office in Seoul on Sunday. The interview was aired on Wednesday evening, ahead of the Lunar New Year holiday. [PRESIDENTIAL OFFICE]

President Yoon Suk Yeol said that it is “regrettable” that first lady Kim Keon Hee was not able to fend off the situation that led to her allegations of receiving a luxury handbag from a pastor in 2022 in his first public remarks about the incident.

“If there is a problem, it was that she wasn’t able to cut him off cold-heartedly, which is regrettable,” Yoon said in a 100-minute New Year’s interview with public broadcaster KBS, which was prerecorded on Sunday and aired at 10 p.m. Wednesday.

Kim allegedly received a Christian Dior handbag valued at around 3 million won ($2,240) as a gift from a Korean American pastor, Choi Jae-young, in September 2022. The allegations were first reported on Nov. 29 by a liberal YouTube news channel, Voice of Seoul.

The pastor secretly filmed the exchange using a hidden camera, and the YouTube channel that released the footage reportedly provided the bag. Yoon was inaugurated as president in May 2022.

The president has been facing mounting pressure to reveal his stance on the allegations against the first lady, but stopped short of issuing an apology in the KBS interview.

“It is very difficult for the president or the president’s wife to treat anyone harshly,” Yoon said, while describing the situation as a premeditated hidden camera operation and a “political maneuver.”

Yoon noted that the pastor had deliberately approached his wife allegedly flaunting a relationship with her late father, who had passed away when she was in middle school.

The meeting occurred before the couple had moved into their official presidential resident in Hannam-dong, central Seoul, while they were still based in their private apartment in Seocho District, southern Seoul. Yoon said Kim had an office in the basement of the apartment, and the security had been more lax then.

When asked by if he agreed with the assessment that Kim was a victim of political maneuvering by some members of the conservative People Power Party (PPP), Yoon agreed, noting that the pastor brought a hidden camera disguised as a watch to secretly record the meeting and the news was reported ahead of April general elections.

“To expose it a year later, before the elections, in itself should be seen as a political maneuver,” Yoon said, but noted it is “more important to draw a clearer line and take action to prevent such incidents from happening in the future.”

The interview, titled “KBS Special Interview: Inside the Presidential Office,” was hosted by KBS news anchor Park Jang-beom and held at the Yongsan presidential office in central Seoul.

It was an opportunity to discuss a range of state affairs and diplomatic achievements as Yoon enters his third year in office.

Yoon kept open a possibility for an inter-Korean summit, regardless of whether North Korea gives up its nuclear weapons, but only if it will produce tangible results. He said such talks should come about from a humanitarian cooperative relationship and a “bottom-up” working-level meetings that set a proper agenda.

Regarding past inter-Korean summits led by former liberal Presidents Kim Dae-jung, Roh Moo-hyun and Moon Jae-in, he said they all “made an effort to improve inter-Korean relations,” but noted, “now that we look back, there was no gain.”

“We plan to provide audacious strategic support even if North Korea does not completely give up its nuclear weapons, if it changes its course of nuclear advancement and shows its intention or begins steps to give up its nuclear weapons,” Yoon said.

South Korea’s nuclear armament, as demanded by some people in the country, “won’t take that long if we put our minds to it,” Yoon said, considering its advanced science and technology capabilities.

However, he noted that while South Korea has the ability to rapidly develop nuclear weapons, it is “unrealistic” to opt to become a nuclear state because it would result in various economic sanctions, just like those on the North. He stressed it is in South Korea’s national interest to strictly comply with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

On foreign affairs, Yoon reaffirmed plans to strengthen South Korea-Japan relations and trilateral security cooperation with the United States.

Yoon pointed to his efforts to upgrade the alliance and U.S. extended deterrence in response to public concerns over the reliability of Washington’s commitment to a nuclear umbrella in the region.

This led to the establishment of the Nuclear Consultative Group (NCG) following the Washington Declaration with U.S. President Joe Biden during Yoon’s state visit to the United States in April 2023.

“Progress is currently being made in the direction where the South Korea-U.S. military alliance is further upgraded to a nuclear-based alliance, where both countries discuss and participate more closely in the planning and execution of specific nuclear operations,” Yoon said.

Yoon praised Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida as a “leader who always keeps his agreements and promises” while discussing a breakthrough in bilateral relations with Seoul and Tokyo last year, which paved way for closer trilateral cooperation with Washington.

Regarding recent Korean court rulings ordering Japanese companies to compensate wartime forced labor victims, Yoon said, “Regardless of whether such rulings are handed down in the future, South Korea-Japan relations have been restored and are moving toward the future.”

On Beijing, Yoon said there aren’t many “differences in basic national and foreign relations policies between South Korea and China” and that “there is no need to worry too much about problems” between the two countries.

He didn’t immediately address the possibility of Chinese President Xi Jinping visiting Korea this year.

Presidential officials said Yoon conducted the interview without the use of notes or a teleprompter.

Yoon has yet to hold a customary presidential New Year’s press conference.

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]