South Korea's vivacious new First Lady charms the nation

Mr Moon Jae In and his wife, Ms Kim Jung Sook, arriving at the presidential Blue House in Seoul on May 10. Her decision to eschew the traditional hanbok for his inauguration ceremony has been cited as a signal that she might well stray from the more
Mr Moon Jae In and his wife, Ms Kim Jung Sook (right), arriving at the presidential Blue House in Seoul on May 10. Her decision to eschew the traditional hanbok for his inauguration ceremony has been cited as a signal that she might well stray from the more traditional role adopted by previous first ladies. Her outspoken ways have won over social media, as have stories about how the couple met as university students and the obstacles they overcame to stay together.PHOTO: REUTERS
Mr Moon Jae In and his wife, Ms Kim Jung Sook, arriving at the presidential Blue House in Seoul on May 10. Her decision to eschew the traditional hanbok for his inauguration ceremony has been cited as a signal that she might well stray from the more
Mr Moon Jae In and his wife, Ms Kim Jung Sook, arriving at the presidential Blue House in Seoul on May 10. Her decision to eschew the traditional hanbok for his inauguration ceremony has been cited as a signal that she might well stray from the more traditional role adopted by previous first ladies. Her outspoken ways have won over social media, as have stories about how the couple met as university students (above) and the obstacles they overcame to stay together.PHOTO: REUTERS

Seven years after dating a man who was put behind bars twice for staging pro-democracy protests, Ms Kim Jung Sook went up to him and did something almost unheard of for a woman in the 1970s.

"Are you going to marry me or not? Tell me now," she boldly proposed - to which Mr Moon Jae In, who is now President, said yes.

More than three decades later, the 62-year-old is still breaking tradition, this time as South Korea's new First Lady, and winning over the country along the way.

Her choice of a trendy white jacket over a matching knee-length dress at Mr Moon's inauguration on May 10 - instead of the traditional hanbok - is seen as a signal that she might not stick to the traditional role of first ladies who just stayed quiet beside their husbands.

Political observers noted how she played a pivotal role in Mr Moon's landslide win on May 9 by helping him to win over voters in Jeolla, where his support base was weak. She visited Jeolla every week to talk to voters and understand their concerns.

Yonhap news agency said her cheerful disposition has helped soften the image of Mr Moon, 64, who is often seen as rather brusque.

In a society that is still very much male-dominated and has progressed little in terms of gender equality, Ms Kim's vivacious and outspoken ways could set a good role model for young women.

BOLD MOVE

Are you going to marry me or not? Tell me now.

MS KIM JUNG SOOK, proposing to Mr Moon Jae In, who promptly said yes.

"I aim to be just myself, as I have always been. A first lady who can communicate with people, like anybody else, in what I call Kim Jung Sook style," she told the Korea Herald newspaper. "I will always keep myself close to the ordinary citizens as first lady."

Social media has been captivated by the story of how she fell in love with Mr Moon and stood by him through his toughest times.

An old video of her laughing next to Mr Moon and holding his arm, like a couple very much in love, has garnered 1.1 million views on Facebook in a week, with over 3,000 raving comments.

They met in college in 1974, where he was studying law and she was a music student. The story goes that their senior wanted to introduce to her someone resembling French actor Alain Delon.

But it was not love at first sight - Mr Moon, whose family was poor and had escaped from the North because of the Korean War of 1950-53, was wearing an old-fashioned jacket that failed to impress.

Things changed after he joined a protest against then authoritarian president Park Chung Hee in 1975 and was hit by tear gas.

"When I opened my eyes, I saw her anxiously wiping my face with a handkerchief," Mr Moon said of the fateful moment worthy of a romantic Korean drama serial.

They became a couple soon after, but her father did not approve of him, and they spent more time apart than together.

Their dates consisted of brief visits she made to see him while he was in prison, while he was in the special forces during his national service and while he was holed up in a hostel cramming for his bar exam.

They married in 1981, and went on to have a son and daughter, now 35 and 34 respectively.

After marriage, Ms Kim gave up her dream of becoming a pianist in order to raise her children - a practice that many South Korean women follow even today.

She was her husband's best supporter, companion and adviser throughout his career as a human rights lawyer, presidential aide and opposition politician.

During his first bid for presidency in 2012 - he lost to Park Geun Hye - she set up social media accounts to campaign alongside him.

Mr Moon has said in interviews that she would sometimes deliver "bitter advice" to him, something unimaginable for traditional wives.

Political commentator David Lee expects Ms Kim to play an active role campaigning for issues that came up during the election, such as gender equality.

Mr Moon pledged during his campaign to tackle discrimination against women, break glass ceilings at work and protect women against violence.

Said Mr Lee: "Moon's wife comes across as very friendly and humble, and she can really mingle with the people, but she's also a very strong-minded lady.

"She has the face of a baby lion. Given how strong a lion is, maybe she can push for a better gender policy in Korea."

Ms Gaye Kim, 28, who works at an Internet firm, hopes that the First Lady can continue to help her husband communicate with the people. "I hope that she can use her power to do something good for the country."

Ms Kim herself has indicated that she will fight for equality.

"I am willing to contribute to building a society where no single person falls victim to injustice or discrimination, but where everyone can have a voice and be respected as much as any other," she said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 22, 2017, with the headline 'South Korea's vivacious new First Lady charms the nation'. Print Edition | Subscribe