Send to

Korean first lady makes mark in US

April 27, 2023 - 15:26 By Son Ji-hyoung
South Korean first lady Kim Keon Hee (second from right, front row) and US counterpart Jill Biden (first from right, front row) were seen attending the state dinner held at the White House on Wednesday. (Yonhap)

First lady Kim Keon Hee's solo engagements as a humanitarian and cultural promoter have garnered the media spotlight during South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol's state visit to the United States this week.

Kim on Wednesday held talks with Cindy Warmbier, mother of Otto Warmbier, who died in 2017 after being imprisoned in North Korea for more than a year for allegedly stealing a propaganda banner during his trip to Pyongyang, according to a spokesperson of President Yoon Suk Yeol's office on Thursday. She also met North Korean defector Joseph Kim at the same event held at the Old Korean Legation Museum.

North Korean human rights issues "must be tackled with international solidarity," and Korea's willingness to address the issues is stronger than ever, Kim was quoted as saying by Yoon's spokesperson. He added that Kim shared her opinion over the gravity of the North Korean human rights problem with US first lady Jill Biden.

A day prior, Kim went to a veteran nursing home in Washington to meet Korean War veterans and she visited a children's hospital to meet young patients suffering from childhood cancers.

As a cultural promoter, meanwhile, Kim privately toured the US National Gallery of Art in Washington on Wednesday morning with her US counterpart. They spent about an hour admiring marquee abstract artworks by abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko, including "Red Band," painted in 1955.

The gallery visit highlighted Kim's former career as an art exhibition organizer before taking on her role as first lady. Kim formerly headed Covana Contents and had organized a special Mark Rothko retrospective exhibition in Seoul in 2015.

It was the first instance of a non-US exhibitor borrowing multiple paintings from the US National Gallery of Art, according to the presidential office, who quoted US President Joe Biden as saying so during Biden's state visit to Seoul in May 2022.

On the sidelines of the summit, Kim attended Yoon's meeting on Monday with Netflix representatives led by its Chief Executive Officer Ted Sarandos, who laid out a $2.5 billion investment commitment over the course of the next four years to nurture South Korean media content. A spokesperson from Yoon's office told reporters in Washington on Monday that the proceedings before Monday's Netflix announcement were reported to both Yoon and Kim, saying Kim had shown keen interest in Korean media content.

Kim also held one-on-one talks with Netflix Chief Content Officer Bela Bajaria, according to the presidential office.

Kim asked Netflix for support in promoting South Korean drama series and movies, given South Korean culture's dynamic and unique elements, a presidential office spokesperson said in a written statement Tuesday. Bajaria responded that Netflix viewers find it more appealing to watch content with stronger Korean elements, the spokesperson added.

First lady Kim Keon Hee (right) talks with a participant at an event to show support for overseas Koreans in Washington, Monday. (Yonhap)

Kim's unique role has been emphasized by her media presence since the start of President Yoon Suk Yeol's term in May 2022.

During an earlier state visit to Japan in March, Kim made Japanese sweets with Japanese first lady Yuko Kishida to signal the possible expansion of cultural exchanges between Seoul and Tokyo. She also met Japanese architect Tadao Ando to discuss possible collaboration in an architecture project in Korea. In January, Kim discussed South Korea's medical services and content with the mother of Emirati leader Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, during a state visit to the United Arab Emirates.

Her active public presence has nevertheless drawn frequent criticism from political opponents, and her US engagements have been no exception.

Lawmakers of the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea, including Reps. Kim Sang-hee and Park Yong-jin have ramped up their attacks on Kim, arguing that the first lady has "intervened in" national affairs because she is not in an elected position and therefore is unqualified to be briefed about Netflix's investment.

This article was written in partnership with the Joint Press Corps.