South Korea to treat ill Cambodian boy at centre of first lady's 'poverty porn' furore

South Korean first Lady Kim Keon-hee photographed with a Cambodian boy.
PHOTO: Presidential Office

An ailing boy who was visited by South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol ’s wife during last month’s Asean summit in Cambodia will be provided free treatment at a hospital in Seoul, a move likely to add more fuel to the political fire caused by the encounter dubbed as “poverty porn”.

The 14-year-old, suffering from a congenital heart disease, will get medical care at the Asan Foundation-run Asan Medical Centre from December.

The hospital and its foundation will also bear his healthcare costs, an Asan representative told the Korea Herald.

The institution added it was in contact with the Hebron Medical Centre, a non-profit hospital founded by a South Korean doctor in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh, where the boy was currently undergoing treatment.

South Korean first Lady Kim Keon-hee photographed with a Cambodian boy.
PHOTO: Presidential Office

First lady Kim Keon-hee met the boy at his home in Phnom Penh on November 12 after skipping a cultural event organised by Cambodia for the visiting leaders’ spouses.

“There is certainly hope. Please don’t give up under any circumstances and keep going,” Yonhap quoted Kim as telling the teen’s family.

The presidential office said Kim went to the boy’s residence as he could not go to the Hebron Medical Centre where she interacted with other child patients.

But the charitable act kicked up a furore in South Korea , with the opposition accusing Kim of practising “poverty porn” during the official trip. They also likened a photo of her holding the boy to a pose of the late British actress Audrey Hepburn with a malnourished child in Somalia in 1992.

“She made her way to a patient’s house to play an ‘Audrey Hepburn’ instead of attending an official event for summits’ spouses, wearing a Jaqueline Kennedy-like sleeveless dress,” former chief of National Intelligence Service Park Ji-won said on a local radio programme.

Audrey Hepburn, a goodwill ambassador for Unicef, is shown with a malnourished child in Somalia in September 1992.
PHOTO: Reuters

Online scorn in South Korea also poured on Kim, calling the meeting a “diplomatic disaster and cringe”.

A Twitter user wrote: “Kim is not a celeb. She must follow the summit meeting programmes. This is the point.”

“She survives by mimicking society’s icons until the right buyer comes along,” said another.

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But some members of Kim’s fan base hit back at her critics, saying “So Audrey can carry a child but the first lady cannot?”

Others said Kim did a “good deed” regardless of what her detractors feel and politicians targeted the first lady because of her gender.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.