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Where is Kim Keon-hee? First lady's absence raises questions

Yoon's popularity inched up after Kim disappeared from public eye. But in long term, her absence might imply his office is hiding something, experts say

By Son Ji-hyoung

Published : March 19, 2024 - 18:00

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In this photo taken in February 2023, first lady Kim Keon Hee visits an exhibition presenting the Oegyujanggak Uigwe, a collection of records that explain how to prepare for and conduct royal ceremonies during the Joseon era. (Presidential office) In this photo taken in February 2023, first lady Kim Keon Hee visits an exhibition presenting the Oegyujanggak Uigwe, a collection of records that explain how to prepare for and conduct royal ceremonies during the Joseon era. (Presidential office)

Kim Keon Hee is nowhere to be seen.

South Korea's first lady has been out of the public eye for four months, and her absence shows no signs of ending.

Kim, 51, was last seen in public upon her return from the Netherlands, along with her husband, President Yoon Suk Yeol, in mid-December last year.

The presidential office has remained silent about the reason behind Kim's absence, as well as about her whereabouts. No health issues have been mentioned.

Her continued absence seems remarkably unusual given her highly active role as first lady during Yoon's public appearances, not to mention her solo engagements with several diplomatic dignitaries on cultural exchanges as well as a series of occasions meant to address her interest in social issues such as animal rights and eco-friendly products.

With Kim raising her voice against dog meat consumption, the ruling bloc swiftly introduced and passed a bill in January, effectively banning the sale of dog meat commencing in 2027.

Kim has also joined Yoon on every foreign visit, beginning with the Madrid summit of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in June 2022, igniting media interest in her fashion choices and her unique personal background as an entrepreneur.

Her absence from this year's ceremony commemorating the March 1 Independence Movement, in particular, was unprecedented, as every first lady has attended the ceremony since the late Kim Dae-jung became president in 1998; no explanation has been provided by the presidential office thus far.

Kim's ongoing absence, however, seemed to provide Yoon with the opportunity to gradually regain his approval rating, beginning in mid-February, at a crucial juncture as the general election on April 10, often referred to as his mid-term report card, draws near.

Yoon's approval rating hit 39 percent for two weeks straight until the first week of March, and the figure marked its highest point since December 2022, as his popularity bounced back from the third week of February after the Lunar New Year, according to Gallup Korea.

Some political commentators have suggested that the presidential office might have intentionally kept Kim away from official engagements to mitigate the buildup of negative sentiment by keeping her out of the spotlight, pointing to the Dior bag scandal that flared up since late last year.

This scandal emerged after hidden camera footage indicated the first lady had received a luxury Christian Dior pouch valued at 3 million won ($2,260) as a gift, in violation of anti-graft legislation.

The scandals surrounding the first lady, and the presidential office's failure to address them, instantly sapped Yoon's popularity. Yoon's approval rating fell below 30 percent for the first time in nine months in early February.

Yoon explained his stance on the Dior bag scandal during a prerecorded interview on broadcaster KBS in early February right before the Lunar New Year holidays. Yoon said his wife lacked sufficient "cold-heartedness" to refuse the expensive gift. Yoon did not offer any apology to the public.

Not only the bag scandal, but a series of controversies surrounding Kim have raised questions about her role and responsibilities, thus leaving Yoon vulnerable to attack.

Allegations of her involvement in stock manipulation, which happened largely before Yoon and Kim tied the knot in 2012, put a damper on Yoon during the presidential campaign. Kim was also accused of academic plagiarism and lying about her academic credentials on job applications, something she apologized to the public for in a press conference in December 2021. Yoon won the election in March 2022.

The main opposition Democratic Party of Korea passed a bill to launch a special counsel to investigate the first lady's alleged involvement in stock manipulation, Yoon used his veto power to block the bill in December.

Distraction persists

Scholars studying the role of first ladies in modern politics noted that a prolonged public absence of the president's spouse could eventually pose a major distraction for her husband's administration in the long run.

"In the US, if the first lady were to disappear for an extended period, it would be the subject of endless speculation," said Katherine Jellison, professor of history at Ohio University.

She said a president who suffered from the first lady's absence without clarifying the reason would end up losing popularity.

"People would assume there were health problems, problems with the couple's marriage, or that the first lady was involved in some type of embarrassing scandal," said Jellison, whose major focus is on the unelected position of the first lady of the US. "The assumption would be that the administration was hiding something, always a bad look for a presidential administration," she added.

Betty Caroli, author of "First Ladies," which chronicled the changing role of first ladies in the US from Martha Washington to Melania Trump, said the presidential office would be responsible for further addressing the first lady's absence.

"In general, when the spouse of an important leader changes behavior, either in associations or public appearances, curiosity mounts, and some explanation is expected," Caroli said.

Yoon's political opponents, meanwhile, said the roles and responsibilities of the first lady should be clearly defined within a legal framework.

Lee Jun-seok, chair of the opposition New Reform Party, rolled out an election pledge to do so in January. In an interview with MBC, he called the move a "future-oriented approach," compared with "fixating on political bickering over the first lady's past actions."

Lee Ki-in, a member of the New Reform Party formation committee, also said in January, "First ladies accompany a presidential visit to a foreign country, and support policymaking decisions in foreign affairs, culture and social affairs. Surprisingly, however, not a single law exists defining the first lady's role."