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US media 'clotheshorse' comment a reminder of first lady's fame and notoriety

By Yoon Min-sik

Published : May 16, 2023 - 17:01

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Kim Keon Hee (Office of the President) Kim Keon Hee (Office of the President)

A US newspaper’s recent comment calling South Korean First Lady Kim Keon Hee a “clotheshorse” and a subsequent complaint from one of its readers has garnered attention in South Korea, where the president's wife is both praised and surrounded by controversy.

In a submission to the weekly readers’ grievances at the Washington Post, one reader took issue with the newspaper describing Kim as a “noted clotheshorse” in an April 27 article. The reader claimed that “gratuitous negative comments on visitors’ clothing are impolite” and that such remarks make the “work of our US government harder.”

A clotheshorse, by dictionary definition, is a frame used to hang washed clothes, but it is also a slang term used to refer to a person who is very concerned with wearing fashionable clothes.

What was initially the personal opinion of a single reader was blown out of proportion Tuesday morning when it was reported by many of the major news outlets in South Korea. As of 2 p.m., Tuesday, over 40 stories about the incident had surfaced since Yonhap News Agency first reported it, accompanied by comment sections filled with threads about whether or not she deserves to be ridiculed.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and his wife Kim Keon Hee pose with US President Joe Biden and US first lady Jill Biden ahead of a state dinner at the White House in Washington, on April 26. (AFP-Yonhap) South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol and his wife Kim Keon Hee pose with US President Joe Biden and US first lady Jill Biden ahead of a state dinner at the White House in Washington, on April 26. (AFP-Yonhap)

The nation and its media have been closely following Kim, paying particular attention to her fashion during official outings and engagements. Last month, numerous headlines appeared about how a particular handbag brand sold out moments after Kim was seen carrying it during the presidential couple’s visit to the US.

Some call it fashion diplomacy, but not all South Koreans appear to be reacting positively to the attention paid to the first lady’s style, or her very presence in the spotlight.

Last month’s survey by local pollster Opinion Research Justice on 1,000 adults in the country showed that 61 percent of the respondents did not approve of Kim’s public appearances.

Plagued by a series of allegations ranging from plagiarism to involvement in a stock price manipulation scheme, Kim had pledged "quiet support" for her husband before the presidential election. “I will live only as a wife, even if my husband gets elected,” she had said at the time.

Despite the promise, Kim has been among the most visible first ladies in the country’s history. Last month, local Oh My News analyzed 67 photo news stories posted by the presidential office in March and found that 38 were of Yoon, 16 were of the first couple, and 13 were of just the first lady. The analysis also showed that an average of 16 photos were released in Kim’s total 13 photo stories, compared to seven for Yoon’s 38 stories.

It is still unclear how much truth lies behind the controversies surrounding Kim, but this latest "clotheshorse" incident is a testament to how a story involving the first lady of South Korea -- no matter how trivial -- is bound to grab at least a few dozen headlines.

First lady Kim Keon Hee plants a commemorative tree to mark the opening of the Yongsan Children's Garden in Yongsan-gu, Seoul, on May 4. (Office of the President) First lady Kim Keon Hee plants a commemorative tree to mark the opening of the Yongsan Children's Garden in Yongsan-gu, Seoul, on May 4. (Office of the President)