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Koreans want first lady to keep low profile, help disadvantaged

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President Yoon Suk-yeol, left, and his wife, Kim Keon-hee, right, waves as citizens, not seen in this photo, cheer after Yoon's inauguration ceremony held in National Assembly, Seoul, Tuesday. Yonhap
President Yoon Suk-yeol, left, and his wife, Kim Keon-hee, right, waves as citizens, not seen in this photo, cheer after Yoon's inauguration ceremony held in National Assembly, Seoul, Tuesday. Yonhap

Poll reflects desired image of first lady to support society's vulnerable

By Kang Hyun-kyung

Six out of every 10 Koreans surveyed believe that Kim Keon-hee ― the wife of President Yoon Suk-yeol ― should not seek an official role as first lady. In a survey of 1,015 people by polling agency Media Tomato, upon request from the online media outlet, News Tomato, 66.4 percent responded that Kim should quietly focus on her role as a supportive wife of the new president, when asked what kind of role they think Kim should pursue after Yoon takes office.

Those who answered Kim should actively play a role as first lady, as her predecessors did, stood only at 24.2 percent. The poll was released on May 4, a week before Yoon was sworn in as the nation's new president on Tuesday, May 10.

Kim herself seems to be partially responsible for the Korean public's overall negative view of her new role as first lady.

Unlike the wives of previous presidents who were full-time housewives when their spouses were elected president, Kim, 49, has a career as an organizer of art exhibition. She founded the exhibition planning startup, COVANA Contents, in 2009 and has since led the company and hosted several exhibitions successfully.

However, it was not her career or business acumen that came into the spotlight when her husband ran in the March 9 election. Since Yoon declared his presidential bid last year, she has been at the center of controversies that resulted in media frenzies.

On Dec. 26 of last year, she held a press conference to deliver an apology after media reports that she allegedly exaggerated and falsified her professional experience when she applied for academic positions. Regarding her short stint as an intern teacher, she reportedly presented that she was a full-time teacher. Her experience as a lecturer was allegedly trumped up to that of an associate professor on her resume. Kim said she was sorry for the trouble she caused, vowing that she would remain a dutiful wife to her husband if he were to be elected president.

Kim made headlines again earlier this year when recordings of her private conversations with a left-wing YouTuber were disclosed on an MBC investigative news show. Her unedited comments about #MeToo victims and her and her husband's political orientations aired.

These two incidents appeared to have paved the way for the public's doubts over her character.

Hong Sung-geol, a professor of public policy at Kookmin University in Seoul, said Koreans have long maintained a conservative attitude toward the spouses of presidents.

"Former first lady Yuk Young-soo set an example as a desirable first lady," he said. The late Yuk (1950-1974) was the wife of the late President Park Chung-hee who ruled the nation for nearly two decades after he rose to power through a military coup in 1961.

"President Park was a strong man. As his wife, Yuk did what she was expected to do. Back then, the nation had no social safety net in place and social welfare didn't exist, either, because the nation was so poor," he said. "There were so many people who were in dire need of help from others. First lady Yuk was there for them. With her role as first lady who took care of disadvantaged children and people, she established the notion of what the nation's first lady was supposed to do. That image of first lady has not changed, even after decades have passed."

Korea's economy has rapidly grown since the 1960s and some systems are now in place to help those in need. "But there are still people who are not covered by social policies, regardless of any economic success the nation has achieved so far. A first lady is considered a person who can look after those who are in need and share the benefits of the society with them," he said.

A 2017 Hankook Ilbo poll showed that Koreans' expectations of the first lady have not dramatically changed over the decades. In the survey of 517 people aged 20 and above, 55.4 percent said that a first lady is expected to take care of socially and economically disadvantaged people, while those who viewed a first lady as a political comrade to her president husband stood at 33.2 percent.

Kang Hyun-kyung

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