TUESDAY, April 16, 2024

South Korean First Lady's absence raises questions ahead of election

South Korean First Lady's absence raises questions ahead of election

South Korea’s First Lady Kim Keon Hee has not been seen in public since last December after a series of controversies, but many are not surprised by her long absence ahead of next week's high-stakes parliamentary election on April 10.

President Yoon Suk Yeol is not running as parliamentary and presidential elections are held separately in South Korea. But as an office holder, he is also not legally permitted to campaign for his People Power Party (PPP), which is facing an uphill battle to win back control of parliament.

Still, the unprecedented absence of Kim since she and Yoon returned from a visit to the Netherlands on Dec. 15 has been considered a political decision to shield the PPP from any negative factor.

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

"If she reemerges, it could be problematic, not just because of the scandals themselves, but due to her unfavourable image with the public."

In 2021, Kim admitted to falsifying parts of her resume when applying for jobs at universities in 2007 and 2013.

Last December, the parliament controlled by the opposition Democratic Party passed a bill for a special prosecutor to investigate allegations that Kim was involved in stock price manipulation before Yoon took office in 2022.

Yoon vetoed the motion on January 5, 2024.

That month, Kim became embroiled in another controversy. Hidden camera footage released appeared to show her accepting a Dior bag as a gift, which threatened to sow division and disarray between Yoon and his PPP.

"After one issue ended, another arose. It was a pattern for her. Then for the last four months, it has been quiet as she had disappeared from the public," Kang Hyun-sook, 65, said when asked about Kim's absence from public view.

Kim has been a drag on Yoon's popularity, which continued to dip from a recent high of 41.9% to 36.3% in an opinion survey of 2,509 people published on Monday (April 1) by the pollster Realmeter.

The PPP was trailing the opposition Democratic Party by 35.4% to 43.1%. Kim's name often appears in a negative light among those responding to opinion polls.

"This has gone too far," said Park Chae-woon, 20, referring to the controversies surrounding the First Lady.

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