ANNAPOLIS, Md. – Maryland's first lady Yumi Hogan is already hugely popular in the state's Asian-American community. Now, her instrumental role in Maryland's response to the coronavirus pandemic — helping to secure 500,000 test kits from South Korea — has emphatically shown that there's much more behind her gracious demeanor and artistic talent.
As Gov. Larry Hogan praised his wife for championing the confidential negotiations, the first lady stood quietly by his side, wearing a mask and a pin with the U.S. and South Korean flags. She added not a word to his surprise announcement that she engineered the arrival of $9 million in critical testing supplies.
It was characteristic of the Korean-born artist, who has generally avoided the spotlight during the Republican governor's tenure. But those who know Yumi Hogan say they aren't surprised that she accomplished what most governors — and even the White House — have struggled to do.
“She is a celebrity and a rock star, really, in the Korean American community in the region, and so her being in the governor’s mansion with Mr. Hogan, it’s a really big deal for folks — back home in Korea as well as here,” said Del. David Moon, a Democrat whose parents immigrated from Korea.
State Sen. Susan Lee, a Democrat who has worked with the first lady, describes her as “very classy” but also tenacious: a “tiger person.”
“Let me tell you, she may come across as beautiful, elegant and soft but she is very determined, and she knows what she wants and she knows who to work with and she gets things done,” Lee said. “And in the Korean community, she is just adored enormously, but she's also adored by the whole Asian-American community, too.”
Yumi Kim was the youngest of eight children on a chicken farm outside Seoul before she emigrated to the U.S. in the 1990s with her first husband. She later divorced and was raising three daughters in Maryland's Howard County when she met Hogan, who then ran a real estate company. They married in 2004.
Chung Pak, a retired U.S. administrative patent judge who has known Yumi Hogan for about 20 years, noted that her nonprofit that helps children with art therapy doesn’t grab headlines the way Monday’s announcement did.
“She’s not an attention seeker,” Pak said. “All she wants to do is to help. She was never a politician.”
She's also an adjunct professor at Maryland Institute College of Art. Her artwork — abstract pieces that use traditional Hanji paper and Sumi ink and mixed media — has been shown in museums in Maryland, Virginia, the District of Columbia and South Korea.
Speaking to a group of women entrepreneurs in 2018, she described herself as a first-generation immigrant who followed her dreams to become an art teacher and artisan. “Some people say, ‘oh, you got the job because your husband is governor.’ No, I was able to stand up myself,” she said to wide applause. “Women can do anything when we put our minds to it.”
Monday's announcement that 500,000 tests had been secretly flown to Maryland on a Korean Air jet on Saturday is surely the most high-profile endeavor she's been involved with as first lady, but she also has traveled overseas to attract business to the state, and in 2015, she met with Korean-American business owners after rioting in Baltimore following the death of a black man in police custody.
The governor said Maryland began working on a “confidential project called Operation Enduring Friendship” when he asked his wife to join him on a call with South Korea's ambassador to the U.S., Lee Soo-hyuck, on March 28.
“We spoke of the special relationship between Maryland and the Republic of Korea, and we made a personal plea in Korean asking for their assistance,” Hogan said.
Hogan thanked a long list of elected officials in the U.S. and South Korea but reserved his highest praise for the woman by his side.
“Most importantly, I want to thank Maryland’s first lady, my wife Yumi,” Hogan said. “She truly is a champion of ‘Operation Enduring Friendship.’”
It wasn't the first time this year that she worked to enhance relations between the two nations. Hogan said they worked with the ambassador to hold a reception at the ambassador's residence in Washington during the National Governors Association annual winter meeting in February.
It was the first time the nation's governors had all gathered together at the ambassador's residence, Hogan said, recalling how South Korea's President Moon Jae-in appeared on a video screen to recognize his nation's partnership with Maryland.
“He said he was so proud of my wife, and he said that they considered me as a han kuk sah we, which means son-in-law to the Korean people, and I considered it quite an honor for him to say that that night, but I had no idea just how much that that would truly come to mean these two very long months later,” Hogan said.