As a result of an ugly incident caught on video in which the Belgian ambassador’s wife berated and slapped a shopkeeper, Brussels has now ended the diplomat’s assignment.
Talk about a lapse in diplomacy.
Belgium is recalling its ambassador to South Korea following a widely publicised incident in which his wife was recorded striking a woman in Seoul (see video below), then claiming she could not be punished because of diplomatic immunity. The incident outraged Koreans and set off a weeks-long firestorm of controversy that eventually culminated in Belgium pulling the ambassador from the post. In a statement Friday, Belgium’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it had “become clear” that Ambassador Peter Lescouhier could not “further carry out his role in a serene way.”
Lescouhier’s wife, Xiang Xueqiu, who is a Chinese national, got into a heated confrontation with two shop assistants in April which ended with Xiang slapping one of the shopkeepers across the face. It was all caught on video. Following the incident, police in Seoul initially said she could not be prosecuted due to diplomatic immunity, a provision to which Xiang had laid claim, but in its statement, Brussels said this had been waived.
To say that an ambassador’s wife physically assaulting a shop assistant is a diplomatic blunder of the highest order is an understatement, and the fallout from the ugly incident was still lingering weeks after the fact.
The altercation took place on April 9 with CCTV footage widely shared online throughout South Korea, showing Xiang arguing with the two store assistants after one of the women asked her about a jacket she was wearing, mistakenly believing she may have stolen it.
The employee, who wished to remain anonymous, told CNN’s Hong Kong bureau that she couldn’t understand Xiang and made an effort to look at the label inside the jacket. When she saw the jacket was not from the shop, she apologised and tried to return to her post, but was pursued by Xiang.
According to CNN’s report, “In the video, Xiang can be seen gesticulating angrily and shoving one of the clerks before slapping her across the face.” A photo later shared with the media showed the young woman was left with a large red welt on her face. It was later reported that she had been briefly hospitalised, then subsequently released.
Following the video being shared across all manner of social media, Xiang made an attempt to apologise for her behaviour. Additionally, though it took nearly two weeks before anything was mentioned publicly, both Ambassador Lescouhier and the embassy officially apologised multiple times for the incident, including on an Instagram post. However, the assault and its aftermath had continued to hang over Belgium’s relationship with South Korea, and in the end, Belgium had seen enough.
In the statement from Brussels, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs noted: “Now that Mrs. Xiang Xueqiu has personally presented her excuses and cooperated with the police, Minister of Foreign Affairs Sophie Wilmès has decided that it is in the best interest of our bilateral relations to end Ambassador Lescouhier’s tenure in the Republic of Korea this summer.”
It’s an ignoble end to the assignment, to be sure. Lescouhier has been ambassador to Seoul since 2018.
Reports from CNN Hong Kong and SCMP contributed to this article.
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