Photo: First Lady Kim Geon-hee (left) and President Yoon Suk-yeol at the presidential office. Credit: Geon-hee Sarang, Kim's fan club.
The time leading up to Chuseok is the most important in South Korean politics, as relatives from different parts of the country get together to converse and solidify their political outlook. In the race of potential political topics for Chuseok table discussion, the clear winner was First Lady Kim Geon-hee 김건희 영부인. According to a Seoul Economy Daily 서울경제신문 article that analyzed the trending search terms on the leading internet search engines during the Chuseok break, the volume of searches for Kim Geon-hee was significantly greater than even those for her husband, President Yoon Suk-yeol 윤석열 대통령.
Supporters of Yoon and Kim attempt to dismiss the criticism against the First Lady by arguing that such criticisms are motivated by sexism, pointing to fringe liberal figures who have marshaled some cringe-worthy language. But Kim’s convoluted life history, decorated with name changes, fraudulently obtained degrees, strategic trysts and white collar crimes, does not allow for easy dismissal.
Kim Geon-hee was born in Seoul in 1972 as Kim Myeong-sin 김명신. She graduated from college in 1996 as an art major. In 2007, she began an art exhibition management company called Covana Contents 코바나컨텐츠. A year later, she changed her name to the present one. Several people have claimed that between 1996 and 2008, Kim was seen working as a high-end call girl under the stage name “Julie 쥴리”, at the Renaissance Hotel in Seoul. Kim has vigorously denied this claim, saying: “I’m a workaholic. I have two master’s degrees and a doctorate. I was busy giving lectures at colleges and running my own business. I didn’t have time to be Julie even if I wanted to.”
While Kim’s history as a hostess is still a matter of dispute, it is well-established that much of her public persona as an academic and art expert is fraudulent. Her doctoral dissertation from Kookmin University 국민대학교 was an absurd exposition about phrenology and matchmaking (“a man with coarse hair matches well with a woman with a large mouth and a bald man, with a woman with a prominent chin,” wrote Kim) that was plagiarized wholesale from a fortune telling website and other academic papers. Nevertheless, Kookmin University awarded Kim a Ph.D. in 2008, and argued in a later investigation that the quality of her paper cannot be re-examined. (See previous coverage, “Kookmin University Exonerates First Lady.”)
Kim’s professional resume is likewise suspect. She spent much of her 20s and 30s working on small art-related jobs and taking university courses designed for professionals. In her resume, they were embellished into impressive exhibits and credentials. Kim once put on an exhibit at a department store owned by Samsung Group; in her resume, the exhibit is described as having been held at the Leeum Samsung Museum of Art 리음미술관, one of South Korea’s most prestigious art museums.
Her CV includes other, more egregious embellishments. Kim once attended a five-day program at the New York University Stern School of Business; but in her resume, this showed up as a Masters in Business Administration (MBA) from Stern. She has also claimed her internship at a school was a tenured position; that she was on the board of directors for a non-profit group that simply shared the same building as her company; and that she won awards in art contests that have no record of her entry. When this became an issue during Yoon Suk-yeol’s presidential campaign, Kim gave a press conference admitting they were false.
During this time, Kim Geon-hee was dating a series of high-ranking prosecutors, eventually marrying Yoon Suk-yeol in 2012. Around this time, Kim and her mother were engaged in a well-documented string of white collar crimes. Kim’s mother was convicted in 2021 for charges that she operated an unlicensed hospice around 2012 and fraudulently received government subsidies; the charges were overturned in an appeal shortly before the presidential election. Kim herself was involved in a stock pump-and-dump scheme, for which her co-conspirators - but not Kim herself - are currently undergoing a criminal trial. (See previous coverage.)
All of this could be written off as embarrassing episodes that do not have much to do with Yoon Suk-yeol himself - if it wasn’t for the fact that the First Lady’s fingerprints are unmistakable in Yoon’s governance. When Yoon was the Supreme Prosecutor 검찰총장, Kim exchanged hundreds of messages with Yoon’s right-hand man Han Dong-hun 한동훈 when Han was facing allegations that he colluded with the conservative press to fabricate charges against liberal politicians. (Han is now the Minister of Justice 법무부장관 under Yoon.) (See previous coverage, “Prosecutors Collude with Conservatives Politicians, Media.”) During the presidential campaign, it was an open secret that Kim Geon-hee was running Yoon’s social media accounts - which were a constant source of puzzling gaffes, like posting a supportive message for Ukraine with a picture of a tangerine with an angry cartoon face.
As the First Lady, Kim has flouted official protocols in favor of her personal friends and fans. Kim has leaked the president’s schedule in advance to her fan club before the journalists in the press pool received it, and brought a personal friend with no security clearance on board the ROK Air Force One 공군1호기 when the president was making a state visit to the NATO summit in Spain. But within the presidential office, raising the possibility of regulating Kim’s activities, perhaps through an official, public-facing staff for the First Lady, is all but impossible, as Yoon is known to react with rage at the suggestion.
More serious is Kim’s seeping influence in Yoon’s personnel and policy choices. As a political novice, Yoon has few allies in politics that he could appoint in key positions. Yoon has filled this gap with two categories of people he knows well: former prosecutors, and his wife’s friends. (See previous coverage, “Yoon’s Personnel Disaster.”) Examining the roster of the presidential office staff, it is clear that many have no experience in politics, but have previously worked for Kim at her company or are otherwise connected to South Korea’s art world.
Yoon’s signature policy move thus far - namely, moving the presidential office out of the Blue House 청와대 - is traceable to Kim’s well-established interest in shamanism. Kim is on record during the presidential campaign as saying she would move the presidential office if her husband should win the election, citing the supposedly negative energy at the site of the Blue House’s state guest house. The move thus far has been rife with allegations of petty grift, with recently established construction companies headed by persons who donated to Kim’s art exhibit company winning non-public bids for building the new presidential office and residence.
Just five years after South Korea has ended one conservative presidency because of an outrageous shamanistic influence-peddling in Park Geun-hye 박근혜’s Choi Soon-sil scandal 최순실 사건, it has seemingly walked right into another one.