SEOUL – For years, Ms Kim Keon-hee was the woman behind the scenes of some of South Korea’s most expensive art exhibitions.
Now she is set to become the woman behind the country’s most powerful man.
Her husband, former prosecutor-general Yoon Suk-yeol, will be inaugurated as South Korea’s 20th President on May 10, after winning a tightly-contested race earlier this month.
But, unlike her predecessors who take on active roles as first lady, Ms Kim, 49, is expected to remain in the shadows.
The chief executive and founder of art exhibition organiser Covana Contents was embroiled in accusations of unfair play throughout her husband’s presidential campaign, becoming such a political liability that he pledged to abolish a presidential office that supports the first lady if elected.
After his win on Mar 10, Ms Kim said she will “quietly” assist him in the background to “create an environment where he can do his best to manage state affairs”.
“I will stay by his side and assist him, even in small ways, to help him faithfully carry out his calling from the people,” she said in her first message to the public as incoming first lady.
Love came late for the couple, both known to be fiercely devoted to their careers.
While Mr Yoon studied law and later joined the state prosecutor’s office, his wife pursued an art education and spent several years teaching before starting Covana in 2007.
In 2017, Ms Kim was named one of 100 trend leaders in a report by Sports Chosun newspaper, which called her a “superstar in the exhibition world”.
She had famously organised two of South Korea’s most expensive exhibitions, one featuring the works of American abstract painter Mark Rothko and the other, Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti. Both drew a lot of praise and positive reviews.
She was also credited with introducing to the Korean audience iconic artists who were not so well known in the country, such as the father of modern architecture Le Corbusier. His exhibition drew an impressive 50,000 people in just a month.
In media interviews, Ms Kim said she has been interested in art since young and naturally decided to start a business to promote the value of art.
Her company’s motto is to “awaken the spirit with culture” and her goal is to “create a positive influence in the cultural sector”.
Not much is known about Ms Kim’s love story, except that she was introduced to Mr Yoon by a monk and they dated for two years before getting married in 2012.
She was then 40, while he was 52.
Mr Yoon reportedly threw away her business card, thinking he would have no chance with someone so much younger than him. But he memorised her e-mail address and later sent her an e-mail expressing his feelings.
Ms Kim said: “I was also hesitant because he only had savings of 20 million won (S$22,346). But if not me, I thought he wouldn’t be able to marry anyone else,” she said in an interview in 2018.
The couple have no children. They live in the upscale Seocho district in southern Seoul with four dogs and three cats.
While she keeps a low profile, Ms Kim drew media scrutiny last year after their private assets were revealed mid last year in a report about the wealth of public officials.
Mr Yoon was revealed to hold only 240 million won in cash deposits, while Ms Kim held bank deposits and properties worth a total of 7.17 billion won.
After he decided to run for presidency last year, rumours started swirling about her, such as how she used to work as a hostess, fabricated her credentials while applying for teaching positions, and was involved in a stock manipulation case with Deutsch Motors.
Ms Kim has denied the hostess claims but apologised for exaggerating her resume “in order to stand out”. The stock manipulation case, in which she is said to have gained huge profits illegally, is now undergoing investigations.
Though viewed as a huge risk to Mr Yoon, who had won the presidential election on a promise to bring back fairness and justice deemed sorely lacking in Korean society, Ms Kim is also described by people close to her husband as a “hidden assistant” who helps him make wise decisions.
She has said she would like to work together with him to “raise awareness in areas in society the government could not reach”.
“The most touching thing my husband has ever said to me is that he will cook for me forever, and he has kept that promise in our 10 years of marriage,” she said. “I believe he will also keep the promises he made to the people.”