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South Korea’s own ‘Kate-gate’? First lady’s months-long absence from public eye sparks speculation

South Korea’s own ‘Kate-gate’? First lady’s months-long absence from public eye sparks speculation

The absence of South Korea’s first lady Kim Keon-hee from public life for months following a Dior bag scandal has raised questions in the east Asian nation.

With clamour over Kate Middleton’s whereabouts in the UK, Ms Kim’s absence has fuelled growing speculation in South Korea, with commentators suggesting that the bag scandal and general elections in April could be the reasons behind her disappearance from the political arena.

Concerns had mounted in the UK over Kate’s lack of public appearances following an abdominal surgery on 16 January, leading to growing speculation about her health.

Ms Kim has not made a public appearance in the last four months, which is an unusual occurrence for the first lady, who has played an active role in South Korean politics since Yoon Suk-yeol took office in 2022.

The 51-year-old was last seen in a public engagement during her visit to the Netherlands alongside her husband Mr Yoon in December 2023 in what was their last foreign trip of the year.

It was a month before Mr Yoon and Ms Kim met the royal couple in Britain as Princess Kate and Prince William led the welcome during their state visit.

Wearing a grey long coat, Ms Kim was pictured alongside the princess as the guests received a royal guard of honour, followed by a day full of engagements.

Prince William, Prince of Wales (R) and Catherine, Princess of Wales (L) pose for a photograph with South Korea’s President Yoon Suk Yeol (2R) and his wife Kim Keon Hee at a hotel in central London on the first day of the state visit of President of the Republic of Korea on November 21, 2023 in London (Getty Images)
Prince William, Prince of Wales (R) and Catherine, Princess of Wales (L) pose for a photograph with South Korea’s President Yoon Suk Yeol (2R) and his wife Kim Keon Hee at a hotel in central London on the first day of the state visit of President of the Republic of Korea on November 21, 2023 in London (Getty Images)

It was the same period when the Dior bag scandal ballooned into a major political controversy in the country, tumbling Mr Yoon’s approval rating below 30 per cent for the first time in nine months in early February.

This scandal hit headlines after spy camera footage suggested that the first lady had received a luxury Christian Dior pouch, valued at three million won (£1742), as a gift, thereby breaching an anti-graft legislation.

The video stirred unrest within his party while the opposition demanded an apology from him and the first lady, who was dubbed “Marie Antoinette of Seoul” after the notorious French queen.

“In the US, if the first lady were to disappear for an extended period, it would be the subject of endless speculation,” professor Katherine Jellison at Ohio University told the Strait Times.

Sojin Lim, a professor of Korean studies at the University of Central Lancashire, told The Independent Ms Kim is “absent in the public sphere because of the upcoming election in South Korea for National Assembly members”.

Such decisions could be taken by a political party around the “election period, especially when the first lady carries out scandals or issues due to political reasons”.

“In order to collect the most votes possible for the leading party, it is better to minimise issues, including her Dior bag controversy,” she said.

According to the Strait Times, Ms Kim’s disappearance from a 2024 ceremony commemorating the 1 March Independence Movement was “unprecedented” as every first lady has attended the ceremony since 1998.

Apart from the Dior bag controversy, Ms Kim’s roles and responsibilities were questioned after allegations of her involvement in stock manipulation and allegations of academic plagiarism.

The allegations of stock manipulation were from the period before she married Mr Yoon in 2012. It prompted the country’s main opposition Democratic Party of Korea to pass a bill to demand a special counsel to investigate the allegations. However, Mr Yoon blocked the bill in December by using his veto power.