Today she joined King Charles and Queen Camilla – as well as the Prince and Princess of Wales – during a state visit to the UK, where she wowed with her age-defying looks and elegant style.
But the South Korean First Lady – who has along with her husband President Yoon Suk-yeol today arrived in Britain for their trip – has in the past year been a controversial figure for the Asian nation’s political scene.
Kim Keon-hee, 51, has been embroiled in controversies involving plagiarism, tax evasion, and stock market corruption.
Some date back to her university days, whereas others are concerned with more recent endeavours.
She has even had to make a televised apology for overstating her work experience for jobs.
So strong was the criticism of the First Lady, that last year the opposing Democratic Party were calling for a ‘Kim Keon-hee Prevention Act’ which would crack down on those who falsify career credentials, the Korea Herald reported.
Here, FEMAIL looks at the highs and lows of Keon-hee’s public image, and the rumours which have mired it.
MARRIAGE TO THE PRESIDENT
Keon-hee married Yoon Suk-yeol in 2012 – and last year, he became South Korea’s 13th president.
According to the Straits Times, the pair had known each other ‘for a long time’ and Keon-hee told a 2018 interview that he ‘had no money and she thought he wouldn’t be able to marry anyone if it wasn’t for her’.
The pair have no children, and live with four dogs and three cats. It is understood the couple tied the knot because an acquaintance advised they were a good match.
Keon-hee herself is known to have built up a life as an entrepreneur in art and design.
She taught the practice in schools and universities before founding Covana Contents – an exhibition company – in 2007.
Speaking to the DongA Business Review in 2015 – as reported by the Korea Herald – she explained: ‘From an early age, I was interested in art. (From my academic background) I naturally came to desire to start a business that can spread the value of art.
‘I wanted to go beyond planning art exhibitions to create a positive influence in the culture sector overall.’
Keon-hee has also in past said that she wouldn’t want to ‘give up on her career and become a housewife just because her husband is a high-ranking official’.
Critics of Mr Yoon, a former prosecutor general, have accused him of suppressing freedom of speech during his 18-month presidency and cracking down on fault-finding news reports about him in the name of fighting ‘fake news’.
He told The Daily Telegraph that the wars in Ukraine and Israel, and rising tension with Russia, North Korea and in the South China Sea, have compelled him to seek ‘very close security co-operation’ with the West.
The president had also secured a landmark deal with the US earlier this year to counter the North Korean nuclear threat.
Mr Yoon previously warned fellow world leaders about possible co-operation between North Korea and Russia after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s face-to-face meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The King and the South Korean President met last year at the reception for heads of state and official overseas guests at the Palace on the eve of the late Queen’s funeral.
Mr Yoon’s opponents accused him of being disrespectful during his trip to London after he missed the chance to view the late Queen’s coffin lying in state – which he blamed on heavy traffic.
He was also caught on microphone swearing after a chat with Mr Biden at the UN general assembly the following week, with the footage going viral in his home country.
Keon-hee graduated from Seoul’s Kyonggi University with an art degree – and then did her PhD at Kookmin University.
As reported by The Korea Times, last year she was plagued by allegations that she had included plagiarisms in her PhD dissertation and other academic writings.
She was cleared, however, following an eight month investigation by Kookmin.
Kookmin had earlier outlined that while Keon-hee’s work had ‘shortcomings’ and were ‘inappropriate according to the current standards’, they didn’t warrant academic misconduct, The Korea Times reported.
STOCK MANIPULATION SCANDAL
In February, a court ruled that Keon-hee’s accounts were used in a Deutsch Motors stock manipulation scandal, notoriously reported on in the country.
Hankyoreh reported that the Seoul Central District Court found suspicious transactions were made from the accounts of Keon-hee and her mother during a period after 2010 – but they couldn’t confirm if the first lady was directly involved in this.
President Yoon however has in past – and during his campaign – claimed that his wife entrusted account management to someone else for only a few months in 2010.
And apparently, it wasn’t long before ties were severed and she withdrew her money.
Yoon, as reported by Hankyoreh, also claims no stock trading took place between 2011 and 2012, which is when the period of stock price manipulation is said to have occurred.
The presidential office is understood to have stood firmly by the line that Keon-hee could not at all be tied to stock price manipulation.
According to a 2019 report, Keon-hee’s house has thrice been seized for ‘non-payment of taxes’.
A translation of the story by Donga said: ‘According to Candidate Yoon’s personnel hearing materials submitted to the National Assembly, the Seocho-gu Office Tax Department 1 seized a residential-commercial complex apartment in Seocho-gu, Seoul, in the name of Candidate Yoon’s wife, Kim, in November 2012, November 2013, and January 2015.
‘Mrs Kim, who married candidate Yoon in 2012, has owned this apartment since 2006.
‘Candidate Yoon’s side stated, “This is because we were unable to check property tax and other tax bills on time while moving to another place within the apartment complex after marriage.”‘
Last September the Korea Herald reported that an ornate necklace Keon-hee wore on a trip to Spain with her husband in the summer – said to be worth around $45,500 – was ‘omitted from a property report’.
However the president’s office alleged it was borrowed from an acquaintance.
Keon-hee also made a televised public apology in 2021 after admitting exaggerating her professional credentials when applying for jobs at universities over a decade ago.
However, it would appear the first lady has tried to put her past controversies behind her.
Speaking to the Korea Herald in March 2022, she said: ‘I believe it is the most important job (for the wife) to create an environment where (Yoon) can do his best to manage state affairs. For the president-elect to concentrate on the people, I will assist him quietly.’