Saving face: Belgian diplomat in Seoul apologises for wife's slapping incident

Belgium’s ambassador to South Korea, Peter Lescouhier.
PHOTO: Screengrab/YouTube/Arirang Culture

Belgium’s ambassador to South Korea Peter Lescouhier on Thursday (April 22) broke a 13-day silence and apologised on behalf of his wife who slapped a Seoul shopkeeper after mistakenly being accused of shoplifting, but new security camera footage of her trying on clothes in the store has further stoked public anger.

The incident has brought an unwelcome limelight on the European country, which ordinarily does not feature in South Korean news because of the negligible trade ties between both nations. Many people have also highlighted the Chinese heritage of Lescouhier’s wife, Xiang Xueqiu.

Local media said the apology had not come until South Korea’s foreign ministry summoned Deputy Head of Mission Patrick Englebert and urged the Belgian embassy to ask for forgiveness and cooperate with police investigations.

“The ambassador of Belgium sincerely regrets the incident involving his wife which happened on April 9 and wants to apologise on her behalf,” the embassy said of the matter, which was first reported on April 15. “No matter the circumstances, the way she reacted is unacceptable.”

The shop worker (above) displays the red mark on her face after being allegedly hit by Xiang Xueqiu, who is the wife of the Belgian ambassador to South Korea.
PHOTO: Reuters

It added that police informed the ambassador that an investigation had been launched on the same day that his wife was hospitalised.

Xiang, 63, was last week reportedly admitted to an intensive care unit following a stroke. She was moved to an ordinary ward days later.

According to the embassy’s statement, the ambassador said Xiang would go to the police once it was possible.

“We hope her health will improve quickly, so she will soon be able to assist with the police investigation, so we can all put this regrettable incident behind us,” the embassy said.

The ambassador would not comment any further or give any interviews while the investigation was still ongoing, it added.

The statement did little to soothe public anger, with many internet users calling for a direct apology from the wife, accusing her of using diplomatic immunity and illness to avoid accountability.

“Is it customary for a Belgian husband to apologise on behalf of his wife who slapped someone else’s face? In Korea, we apologise ourselves for wrongs we committed,” a user wrote on the Seoul Sinmun Daily news website.

“Stop taking advantage of diplomatic immunity to get away with the violence. Apologise and present yourself to police for questioning,” another wrote on the Chosun Ilbo Daily website.

A shopkeeper said Xiang was in the clothing store in the prosperous Hannam district for about an hour. “She tried on different clothes at corners hidden by columns and racks of clothes.”

New CCTV footage showed Xiang pulling on a pair of white pants while still wearing her shoes – “a nonsensical act that could smear the product”, according to JTBC TV.

She later walked out of the shop without buying anything.

One of the employees mistakenly thought Xiang had left without paying as her jacket looked similar to one being sold at the shop, and pursued her.

When the shop worker realised her mistake, she apologised, but the ambassador’s wife came back into the shop and flew into a rage.

She returns to the store and points a finger at the shop worker (right) who accused her of stealing clothes as a second shop worker (centre) tries to calm things down.
PHOTO: Reuters

Security camera footage showed Xiang pulling an employee by the arm and hitting her on the back of her head. When the shopkeeper stepped between the two to calm them down, Xiang slapped her on the face.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.