Politics of Appearance
President-elect Yoon Suk-yeoul's wife has been in the news for months for her looks. It shows that beauty is a tricky commodity in South Korean politics.
When South Korea's new president-elect Yoon Suk-yeoul was made the nation's top prosecutor in July 2019, the appearance of his wife Kim Geon-hee, who accompanied him to the ceremony, drew as much attention as the appointment itself.
Twelve years younger than Yoon, with two long locks of hair framing her youthful face, she stood out even in a simple black skirt suit and got the public buzzing.
Last weekend, just a few days after Yoon's electoral victory on Mar. 9 as the conservative opposition People Power Party's candidate, Kim, now aged 49, was again in focus for how she looks.
South Korean media ran some dozen articles to praise her beauty. To be precise, they were quoting Taiwanese news reports about her, whom several headlines described as "beautiful like a Korean star". Those articles in Chinese also mentioned many of the ugly allegations she faces, including that she padded her resume (one even wrote "super attractive but scandals are numerous"). But South Korean journalists picking up the story were keen only to emphasize that Kim Geon-hee's appearance is the talk of Taiwan.
It revealed a media establishment eager to cozy up to the new president-elect, prompting Ohmynews, a leftist outlet with no love for the conservative Yoon, to call the coverage "excessive idolization of Kim by domestic media".
South Korea is a famously image-conscious nation. The large number of plastic surgery clinics (not to mention the frequency with which people receive 'procedures' and 'treatments') is well-known. Parents may pay for a little facial modification when children graduate from high school, as reward for hard work. Some jobseekers confess to going under the knife so that they can boost their chances at landing coveted positions, given the custom of attaching a headshot on the resume.
And it's not unusual for South Korean media to play nice with politicians in vogue; outgoing president Moon Jae-in was subject to a similar kid-glove treatment after winning power five years ago. That he took off his suit jacket and hung it personally on a chair instead of asking a secretary to do it ('how down to earth!'), or he bought his shoes from a manufacturer working with hearing-impaired artisans ('such sympathy for the marginalized!'), was regularly reported in the early phase of his presidency.
Pictures of Moon as a young man also made the rounds, eliciting compliments on his former good looks.
But the coverage of Kim's alleged attractiveness has taken a big arc, not always being about flattery or beauty only. When in March last year Yoon resigned his post as prosecutor general and hinted at running for presidency, attacks against him started to grow, and many of them focused on his wife.
Only three months later in June, rumors started flying that Kim once worked at an exclusive bar in the basement of the Ramada Renaissance Hotel in Seoul's wealthy Gangnam district, using "Julie" as her pseudonym.
Being a bar hostess in South Korea is often seen as akin to being a sex worker (the Korean phrase suljip yeoja 술집 여자—literally "a bar lady"—implies that the person in question works at a drinking establishment and offers sex for compensation), and Kim was quick to dismiss the allegation in a media interview:
"All these stories about how I was Julie or a hostess at some hotel are absurd. It goes I worked there for several years and I was its top employee, but I'm not beautiful enough for that," she told online news site Newsverse on Jun. 30.
Her beauty, though, was seen as lending credibility to the story.
Some have testified to seeing Kim at the bar and even receiving her service, and the whispering took on a life of its own. Yoon didn't part on friendly terms with the administration, which punished him for pursuing criminal investigations into Moon's allies, and the ruling Minjoo Party figures and pro-government media uneasy about Yoon's rising profile didn't shy away from amplifying the gossip about Kim's former life.
"I heard about Julie", said former justice minister Choo Mi-ae—who publicly feuded with Yoon as his direct boss before Yoon quit—in a radio interview on the same day Kim denied having been a bar hostess. "I think that a presidential candidate should be clean not only himself but those around him as well."
And plastic surgery has been invoked as a sign something is wrong with Kim. In December a former lawmaker from the ruling party wrote on Facebook, "I had known Kim's face changed, but now that I look at it more closely, her eyes have become much bigger." A prosecutor known for taking a pro-Minjoo stance quipped, "I think this is a good example of how plastic surgery has changed someone's appearance for the better."
Without quite coming out and saying it, they were insinuating that Kim has changed both her appearance and who she is as a person: if she could surgically alter her face, surely she embellished her personal history, too?
The tasteless comments made an official with the small left-leaning Justice Party—normally sympathetic to the Minjoo—sigh, "Isn't the Minjoo Party ashamed that all they talk about during the election season is allegations about the sexual history and face of a candidate's female partner? Even as a member of another political party, I am embarrassed for them."
Kim admitted to receiving double-eyelid surgery as a university student, as many young South Korean women do, but such has been the preoccupation with her face, especially among elements of the political left, that well-known leftist singer Ahn Chi-hwan even released a single titled "A Woman Resembling Michael Jackson" on Feb. 11. On its cover was a picture of someone who looks very much like a cross between the notoriously plastic surgery-obsessed Jackson and Kim.
Ahn sings: "A woman resembling Michael Jackson / A woman with several faces / A woman with several names / No more No more / One is enough / Why are you doing this / What are you dreaming / Don't wish for what you don't deserve / Are you insane /"
Denying that he targeted Kim, Ahn said, "Interpretation is up to the listener", but most understood him to be taking a cheap shot at Kim for her alleged past and plastic surgery. Pundit Chin Jung-kwon criticized the song as "political incitement with a misogynistic perspective in the background", writing in his column for the newspaper The Joongang:
"Kim deserves criticism indeed [...] for comments defending sexual harassment, exaggerating her career and education, relying on shamanism, and alleged involvement in manipulating stock prices of a company. So why choose plastic surgery over all these other materials as the point of mockery?"
It's obvious why: perhaps for the first time, South Korea welcomes a first lady whose physical attributes invite discussion about her beauty, and opponents see a need to politicize it. And Kim's relationship to Yoon, whom she married when he was 51 and with whom she has no children, has fueled questioning that not all of their history together may have been proper (prosecutors are powerful public officials, and many in the past have landed in scandals involving paid sex and untoward relationships with women).
Yet the way the Minjoo Party attempted to counter Kim's good looks, essentially by accusing her of being a surgically enhanced former sex worker unfit to be a presidential spouse, fell flat. In November another Minjoo lawmaker posted on Facebook a picture of Kim alongside that of the Minjoo party candidate's wife, writing "mother of two children vs mother of Tory; the first lady, too, represents the nation's class." (Tory is Yoon and Kim's dog).
That message implied that only women who give birth (and have had no obvious plastic surgery) are qualified to be married to a president, in a very traditional view of womanhood. The ensuing backlash was swift, and the lawmaker deleted the post.
Funnily, the most famous case of plastic surgery in the history of South Korean politics dates back to 2005 and involves a figure sacred to the Minjoo. Then-president Roh Moo-hyun, whom current president Moon Jae-in served as chief of staff, and Roh's wife both received double-eyelid surgery in the middle of Roh's term in power. Roh also confessed to receiving botox shots in 2002, as he campaigned for the presidency, in order to remove a deep wrinkle in his forehead.
While many conservatives derided Roh and his wife at the time for the surgery, officially explained as necessary for legitimate health reasons, the news didn't reverberate for long, not unlike in Kim's situation.
But Kim is now the winner's wife. Media is sidling up to her, and her look may very well serve as political capital. Already, her official fan club (yes, such a thing exists) boasts some 87,000 members, and it made waves back in January by photoshopping Kim's face onto the body of Israeli actress Gal Gadot in the poster for the 2017 movie Wonder Woman.
This incongruous image went viral, suggesting that beauty can be both a disadvantage and an asset in politics.