Son Myeong-sun, 96, First Lady of Kim Young-sam

Unlike First Ladies, Son assiduously avoided the limelight.

Son Myeong-sun, 96, First Lady of Kim Young-sam

Photo: Son Myeong-sun (right) with Kim Young-sam. Credit: National Archives.

On March 7, Son Myeong-sun 손명순 passed away at Seoul National University Hospital from chronic illness. The former first lady to President Kim Young-sam 김영삼 avoided the limelight to the very end, preferring to exert her influence behind the scenes.

Born in 1929, Son was a portrait of an elite Korean woman of her generation. Her father,  a trader of rubber and tires, was one of the wealthiest Koreans under the Japanese occupation. While attending Ewha Woman’s University 이화여자대학교, where she majored in pharmacy, Son met Kim Young-sam, then a philosophy major at Seoul National University, and married him in 1951. From that day forth, Son’s life became intertwined with the very public life of her husband.

Kim Young-sam won the election to be an Assembly Member in 1953 at the age of 26, making him one of the youngest legislators in South Korean history. Kim would go onto become one of the most important figures of South Korea’s democratic history, working for more than three decades against the dictatorship of Syngman Rhee 이승만, Park Chung-hee 박정희 and Chun Doo-hwan 전두환 and ultimately becoming the democratically elected president of South Korea from 1992 to 1997.

Throughout her husband’s turbulent career, which included numerous arrests, hunger strikes and assassination attempts, Son was known for her extraordinary effort to remain behind the scenes. She was never implicated in any bribery scandals, unlike Chun Doo-hwan 전두환’s wife Lee Sun-ja 이순자; nor did she pursue any kind of public role, unlike Kim Dae-jung 김대중’s wife Lee Hee-ho 이희호, a longtime feminist activist.

Son, instead, read Bible verses to her husband as he waged a 23-day hunger strike to protest the Chun Doo-hwan administration. Her most famous public photo is from 1998: seated next to Lee Sun-ja in a row of former First Ladies; Son maintains a steely straight-forward gaze, not sparing the dictator’s wife so much as a glance.

Son Myeong-sun and Kim Young-sam had three daughters and two sons. Kim In-gyu 김인규, Kim and Son’s grandson and a former presidential staffer, is running in the April 10 General Election 총선 in Busan 부산, where the Kim family is from.

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