Two different first ladies

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Two different first ladies

The author is an EYE team reporter of the JoongAng Ilbo.

On June 17 at the helipad in the South Lawn of the White House, U.S. President Joe Biden and his wife were boarding the helicopter to travel to his private residence in Delaware. At the American equivalent of the doorstep interviews in Korea, reporters asked questions on state affairs to Biden. He sincerely answered rather sensitive questions about the Russia-Ukraine War and the rise of international oil prices. With his approval rating falling before the midterm election in November, he needed to boost public sentiment through the media.

An impressive scene followed. After watching her husband from afar, First Lady Jill Biden approached Biden and said, “We’ve got to go.” As Biden wrapped up, the first lady asked for understanding and headed to the helicopter with her husband. Some reporters seemed confused, but there was no aftermath. In fact, the American media considers it a proper move, as she helped her husband take a break.

It may be a scene that shows the political status of the first lady in America. U.S. media calls her “President Biden’s biggest political asset” and reports how she critically influenced Biden’s signature policies, including free kindergartens and support for women returning to work. Another factor for her popularity is that she — a former English teacher — is the first “working” first lady in the United States.

Comparing the U.S. first lady with Kim Keon-hee, the wife of Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol may be meaningless. It is hard to imagine Kim intervening while her husband exchanges questions and answers with reporters. Her claim to be “the first working first lady” is questionable after her controversial business — Covana Contents — shut down. On top of that, she has too many allegations to clarify, such as plagiarism in her doctoral dissertation, a falsified career and involvement in stock manipulation.

Nevertheless, the reason why I bring up this issue is that I don’t want to see first lady Kim secretly volunteering to wash dishes and clean restrooms throughout the remaining four years of the presidency of her husband. There is no legal status or responsibility granted to the president’s spouse. But there is a required social role and expectation according to the changing times.

It may be Kim’s strength to get attention for wearing a hanbok on an overseas trip, a difference from other first ladies. If she adds depth to issues she showed interest in — climate change and animal abuse, for instance — she may be able to make meaningful changes. I hope I am not asking for too much.
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