S. Korean first lady likely to face questioning by prosecutors over Dior handbag scandal

Posted on : 2024-05-07 16:58 KST Modified on : 2024-05-07 16:58 KST
The key point of contention will likely regard whether the handbag can be connected to the official duties of the president
South Korea’s first lady, Kim Keon-hee, arrives at Seoul Air Base in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, on Dec. 11, 2023, after accompanying President Yoon Suk-yeol on a state visit to the Netherlands. (Yonhap)
South Korea’s first lady, Kim Keon-hee, arrives at Seoul Air Base in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, on Dec. 11, 2023, after accompanying President Yoon Suk-yeol on a state visit to the Netherlands. (Yonhap)

Prosecutor General Lee One-seok’s orders for a swift investigation of allegations concerning first lady Kim Keon-hee’s acceptance of a luxury handbag have turned attention not only to the possibility of her facing criminal punishment but also to the prospect of her undergoing questioning.

The likelihood of Kim facing penalties is slight, as spouses of public officials are not subject to punishment according to Korea’s anti-graft laws. But there is a strong likelihood that she will be directly questioned to verify the facts.

Some observers are suggesting that questioning in connection with alleged Deutsch Motor stock price manipulations could take place at the same time.

The Hankyoreh’s investigation on Monday found that the first criminal division of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office, under chief prosecutor Kim Seung-ho, had one prosecutor each assigned from the third anti-corruption investigation division (under the fourth deputy prosecutor general, who is in charge of special investigations), the criminal asset recovery division, and the fair transaction investigation division.

This procedure follows orders issued by Lee when he received a report on Thursday from Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office chief Song Kyung-ho. At the time, Lee ordered “the formation of a dedicated team to conduct a swift and thorough investigation.”

The prosecutors are expected to question Baek Eun-jong, the president of the Voice of Seoul news outlet, as the person who reported the first lady to the authorities for accepting the luxury handbag. 

Baek, however, has said that he will request that the questioning be pushed back to sometime after May 20, so that he may make “additional accusations and set the record straight,” meaning the investigation may be delayed.   

On Nov. 27 of last year, the Voice of Seoul uploaded a video showing Korean-American pastor Choi Jae-young giving the first lady a Christian Dior clutch handbag worth around US$2,250. In December, the media outlet reported the president and the first lady for violating laws pertaining to graft and solicitation. The Voice of Seoul claims that there is additional footage of the first lady receiving even more gifts from other parties, which Baek is preparing for an additional round of accusations.   

Many are watching to see if prosecutors will question the first lady directly once they begin their investigation into the matter. For prosecutors to make a legal judgment on the actions of Kim Keon-hee, Yoon and Choi, they’ll need to get the facts straight, which will necessitate questioning Kim herself. 

If prosecutors question the first lady, there is a possibility that they will also question her regarding allegations of involvement in manipulating Deutsch Motors stock prices. That would likely be assigned to the second anti-corruption division within the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office, an entirely different division from the one that would be tasked with the handbag probe. Because calling the first lady in for questioning multiple times won’t be easy, there’s a sense within the prosecution service that Kim could be questioned with regard to both cases. 

“Even if it’s before the court reaches a verdict in the second trial on the Deutsch Motor stock manipulation case, it’s still possible to question the first lady,” said a high-ranking prosecutor.

“That’s something that will need to be determined once the first lady is able to be questioned [regarding the handbag scandal],” they added. 

Once the investigation gets underway, the key points of contention will likely regard whether the handbag can be connected to the official duties of the president. The Improper Solicitation and Graft Act forbids any public official from accepting a gift worth more than 1 million won (US$736) in a single sitting or 3 million won (US$2,209) within the period of one year. The law also pertains to the spouse of any public official. More importantly, the law explicitly states that the gifts must be accepted, requested, or promised “in connection with his or her duties.” 

It also does not contain any language pertaining to the direct punishment of an official’s spouse. So even if a connection is found between the handbag and the president’s official duties, the first lady is likely going to avoid direct punishment. But if the handbag can be linked to the president’s official duties, it will put the presidential official in a tight corner, as the investigation will then focus on whether or not the president’s actions qualify as “improper solicitation.” 

The law requires any public official to report to the authorities whenever their spouse receives a gift related to their professional duties. Failure to do so will be met with a punishment of up to three years in prison or a fine of 30 million won (US$22,094). 

The Improper Solicitation and Graft Act obliges the public official involved to submit a “written statement” to the head of the relevant authorities. There’s even an official form to fill out when filing a report. Yet if Yoon himself is the head of the relevant institution, then it could be interpreted that there was no need to file a report. At the same time, prosecutors could insist that the law specifically requires the submission of a written report. 

If prosecutors focus on the latter argument, Yoon will need to prove that he did, indeed, file a written report to avoid criminal punishment. 

The Voice of Seoul is making the assertion that, since the president and the first lady are married, the couple qualifies as a single economic unit, and that the first lady can be seen as an accomplice. Legal interpretations pertaining to bribes taken directly by the president tend to be more broad than those taken by other public officials. This leaves room for both Yoon and Kim to be charged.

Yet many legal experts maintain that it’s going to be difficult to attain a conviction on bribery charges. 

“If prosecutors can prove a link between the gift and the president’s official duties, then they can assert a violation of the Improper Solicitation and Graft Act. If they can go further and prove that the present was a form of improper solicitation or quid pro quo, then that could qualify as bribery,” said a seasoned prosecutor.

“Yet there are almost no cases where the defendant is convicted of bribery without being convicted of violating the Improper Solicitation and Graft Act,” the prosecutor added.

“Although the president has broad authority over personnel decisions, it all depends on what kind of conversation that the two had,” said an attorney and former judge. 

“They need to uncover quid pro quo in connection to [the president’s] official duties. Only then can they be charged with bribery,” he added. 

Meanwhile, there has been much speculation about what prompted the prosecutor general to announce an investigation a whole five months after the initial report was filed. 

There have been reports of friction between the prosecutor general and the presidential office due to the former announcing the need to question the first lady in relation to the stock manipulation case. Some believe this to be the reason that the presidential office resurrected the formerly defunct position of senior presidential secretary for civil affairs, and mobilized senior state officials to rein in prosecutors. Some take Lee’s announcement as a move by the prosecutor general to showcase his independence from the president. 

“If the prosecutor general were intent on letting this investigation slip away, he’d hand it off to the police or he’d have the original investigative team wrap it up internally,” said a deputy chief prosecutor. 

“The fact that he’s stepping up personally indicates a willingness to go against the Yoon administration,” the prosecutor added. 

At the same time, some have interpreted the development as a strategic move made in consideration of a push by the Democratic Party, fresh off its general election win, to appoint an independent prosecutor to investigate Kim Keon-hee. 

Another source in the prosecution service said that because not pursuing an investigation could come back to bite them if a special counsel probe is launched, the move “appears to be a judgment aimed at protecting the organization.”

By Bae Ji-hyun, staff reporter; Jeong Hye-min, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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