It takes more than this week's furious gunbattle between North and South Korean ships at sea to get the stoic people of Seoul in a lather. A few flying bullets don't faze them. What's really got them frothing is the Power Wives scandal--a nasty, public feud among the pampered, bejeweled wives of Seoul's elite.
It started when the wife of a wealthy business tycoon said she had been pressured to buy $20,000 worth of dresses for the wife of a cabinet minister. The suggestion was that the minister would, in return, help the tycoon out of a legal jam. The woman said she refused, and her husband was soon arrested for illegal business practices.
That explosive allegation of influence peddling led to an investigation by public prosecutors and all-out media coverage--and cost a top cabinet official his job. In the process, it gave the South Korean public, struggling through tough times, a rare glimpse into the lifestyles of the wives of the rich and famous.
"Even I as a member of the middle class . . . am enraged at the wives of public figures. They should not have behaved that way," said Kim Eun Kyung, 42, a housewife in Seoul. "Think of the lower class, what would they think during this economic crisis?"
Many of the elite wives, it was disclosed, belong to the so-called Wednesday Volunteer Club, a charity group founded 35 years ago by a former first lady. Dozens of club members meet regularly to do good works, including knitting socks for the military and the poor. But when the charity chores are done, they adjourn to lunch at the finest restaurants and shopping sprees at the most chic boutiques, where purchases have included Tiffany diamonds and $25,000 minks.
Public outrage has grown with each new detail: the wives' shopping trips abroad, wealthy wives of business executives cozying up to wives of political leaders with gifts of designer suits, handbags and coats. Some boutiques, it turns out, offered wives of political figures 50 percent discounts. That in turn brought in status-conscious wives of business tycoons, who enjoyed rubbing elbows with the powers behind the throne in dressing rooms or over a discussion of the latest fashions.
The Korean media have reported that expensive presents were routinely sent from business wives to political wives--everything from antiques to alcohol. That has left the public with a queasy feeling that the bribery and corruption that have dogged South Korean business and government for years are still alive and well--but now being carried out by wives in Chanel suits.
As the mud slings back and forth in the haute couture salons of Seoul, the Days of Our Wives scandal has widened into a debate about class and status and the shadowy spoils of political power.
"The affair has exposed once again the sad realities in our society where money chases power through all possible channels, corrupting people and distorting rules and norms of all sectors," the Korea Herald newspaper said in a recent editorial.
"Clubs for Wives of Rich and Powerful Rapped for Seemingly Vacuous Pursuits," was the headline of one recent newspaper story, which, like much of the coverage, dropped all pretense of objectivity and went for the jugular. The story went on to describe how the wives' groups gather in "lavish fashion boutiques of deluxe hotel restaurants to discuss their interests--mostly money or expensive clothes."
Since the scandal broke, five similar wives clubs in provinces have disbanded.
The public anger has overshadowed, at least temporarily, the important political and economic news of the day. President Kim Dae Jung has spent hours in emergency cabinet meetings doing damage control, spinning out statements claiming that the media are exaggerating the scandal.
On Wednesday, the day after the worst inter-Korean naval battle since the Korean War ended in 1953, the Korea Herald's editorial page was split--half about the shooting, and half about the wives.
"No amount of political rhetoric by [President] Kim has proved sufficient to placate the people and remove their sense of deprivation and betrayal," said the editorial, accusing Kim of failing to grasp the depth of public anger.
Prosecutors completed their investigation recently and issued a report that essentially let the two politicians' wives and the tycoon's wife at the core of the scandal off the hook for any criminal charges. Critics were quick to note that one of the women involved is married to the justice minister--the prosecutors' boss.
President Kim eventually fired the minister, one of his oldest and closest political buddies. But the fur, like the bullets at sea, continues to fly.