Despite opposition pressure for first lady Kim Keon Hee to keep to a more supporting role, eyes are on whether she would continue to strike out on her own when she accompanies Yoon Suk Yeol on his first presidential trip this year Saturday.
She and Yoon will go on a state visit to the United Arab Emirates and attend the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, for six days.
“There is a high possibility that Kim will take an independent step (as she did in Cambodia) during the trip,” said Choi Jin, head of the Institute for Presidential Leadership, a research firm in Seoul.
He was referring to when she visited a sick boy in Cambodia during Yoon’s trip to Southeast Asia in November. She later faced criticism from the opposition bloc, who called the visit stage-managed and exploitative, but this did not bring down Yoon's support ratings unlike her past controversies.
Choi expects she will go beyond having the routine private conversations with first ladies of other countries in order to "serve as a global first lady."
“This is because she has an active and outgoing personality and has had a professional career for a long time unlike former first ladies,” he said.
“She may also think she needs to support Yoon, who does not have much political experience.”
Since late last year, the 50-year-old former enterpreneur has been out and about making public visits to local institutions.
On Wednesday, Kim visited community centers and a local market in Daegu to serve meals for senior citizens and met with small-business owners. This came days after a visit to a special exhibition of modern literature where she asked the culture minister to boost support for translation and publication of Korean literature for a global audience. At a New Year’s event, she asked lawmakers of the ruling People Power Party to extend more support to Yoon.
Kim is expected to further “participate in some state affairs in some form," Choi said.
Her involvement in various social activities is in line with what other first ladies have been doing elsewhere. In addition, from a political standpoint, it may have a positive effect in “drawing support from political centrists.”
At the beginning of Yoon’s inauguration, some controversies surrounding Kim were cited as the cause of his falling approval ratings. However, his recent approval ratings in various polls have remained in the 40 percent range, despite Kim’s recent frequent public moves.
But Choi suggested the first lady take a more prudent and sophisticated approach to avoid being embroiled in gossip. Kim faced criticism for taking acquaintances along as part of the president’s retinue at the NATO summit in June last year, a month after he took office.
Bae Jong-chan, a political consultant and president of research firm Insight K, said Kim will choose “strategic prudence” during this overseas trip, having learned from past experiences and mistakes.
Other experts said the first lady should continue with her activities for "national interest."
“I don’t want to deny that there are allegations surrounding her,” said Shin Yul, a political science professor at Myongji University. Kim still faces some allegations of stock price manipulation at Deutsch Motors, a local dealer of BMW cars.
“However, the role of the first lady is necessary despite (Kim facing those allegations)," Shin said. As for the controversy involving Kim in Cambodia, Shin said the opposition party's attack was misplaced and focused on trivial matters.
The presidential office said Kim's schedule during Yoon's trip to the UAE and Davos have yet to be set.