South Korea’s first lady avoids limelight ahead of high-stakes election

By Sebin Choi and Hyun Young Yi

SEOUL (Reuters) – Beset by controversies about share price manipulation and a costly gifted handbag, South Korea’s first lady has not been seen in public since Dec. 15, but few in Seoul were surprised as a high-stakes parliamentary election approaches this month.

President Yoon Suk Yeol is not running in the April 10 election in which his People Power Party faces an uphill battle to win back control of parliament, and is also barred from campaigning, as he already holds public office.

Still, the unprecedented absence from public view of his wife, Kim Keon Hee, after the couple returned from a visit to the Netherlands on Dec. 15, is seen by analysts as a political decision to shield the party from any negative comment.

“Since the first lady is not portraying positive images to the public, for her to remain quiet during this time might actually help (Yoon’s party in) the election,” said Shin Yul, a political science professor at Myongji University in Seoul.

“If she re-emerges, it could be problematic, not just because of the scandals themselves, but her unfavourable image before the public.”

The president’s office did not have comment.

Before Yoon’s election in 2022, the accusations of Kim’s involvement in stock price manipulation had prompted parliament, controlled by the Democratic Party, to pass a bill for an investigation by a special prosecutor. But Yoon vetoed it.

His wife again became embroiled in controversy in January, when images recorded by a hidden camera showed her accepting a Dior bag as a gift, an action that threatened to sow disarray in Yoon’s PPP.

“After one issue ended, another arose,” said Kang Hyun-sook, a 65-year-old resident of the capital. “It was a pattern for her. Then for the last four months, it has been quiet as she disappeared from the public eye.”

Kim, who has been an advocate for animal rights, had raised her profile with work to stop the consumption of dog meat and helped a push to ban the practice in South Korea.

Still, Kim has been a drag on Yoon’s popularity, which dipped to 36.3% in a survey of 2,509 people published on Monday by pollster Realmeter, from a recent high of 41.9%.

The PPP was trailing the Democratic Party, at 35.4% to 43.1%.

“This has gone too far,” said another Seoul resident, Park Chae-woon, 20, referring to the controversy around Kim.

“I believe she should not hide, but confront the issues, either by making an apology or taking responsibility on the matters.”

(Reporting by Sebin Choi and Hyun Young Yi; Writing by Jack Kim; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)


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