Updated March 22nd, 2024 at 13:48 IST

Korean 'Kate-gate'? South Korean First Lady's Absence Sparks Speculation

The first lady's absence from a 2024 ceremony commemorating the 1 March Independence Movement was described as "unprecedented".

Reported by: Digital Desk
Kim Keon-hee and Yoon Suk Yeol | Image:AP

The prolonged absence of South Korea’s first lady, Kim Keon-hee, from public life has stirred speculation and raised questions across the East Asian nation, drawing comparisons to similar concerns over Kate Middleton's whereabouts in the UK.

Ms. Kim's retreat from public engagements for the past several months has fueled rumors and conjecture, with many attributing her absence to a scandal involving a luxury Dior bag and the upcoming general elections in April.


South Korean 1st lady hasn't been since in public since December 2023

The 51-year-old first lady, known for her active role in South Korean politics since her husband, Yoon Suk-yeol, assumed office in 2022, has not been seen in public since December 2023, during a visit to the Netherlands alongside President Yoon.


Her last high-profile appearance was alongside the British royal couple, Prince William and Princess Kate, during their state visit to Britain, where she was photographed wearing a grey long coat participating in various engagements.

However, the Dior bag scandal erupted during this period, causing a significant political uproar and denting President Yoon's approval ratings, as spy camera footage suggested that the first lady had received the luxury pouch as a gift, violating anti-graft legislation.


An attempt to pour water on the controversy?

Experts suggest that Ms. Kim's disappearance from public view could be a strategic move by the ruling party ahead of the upcoming elections, aiming to mitigate controversies and maximize electoral support.


According to Sojin Lim, a senior lecturer in Korean studies, who spoke with The Independent, such decisions are not uncommon during election periods, especially when first ladies are embroiled in scandals or issues of political significance.

The first lady's absence from a 2024 ceremony commemorating the 1 March Independence Movement was described as "unprecedented," marking a departure from the tradition where every first lady has attended since 1998.


Here is what else you need to know

Aside from the Dior bag controversy, Ms. Kim's roles and responsibilities have come under scrutiny following allegations of stock manipulation predating her marriage to President Yoon in 2012, as well as accusations of academic plagiarism.


Despite calls for investigation and a bill passed by the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea, President Yoon utilized his veto power to block the bill in December, further adding to the controversies surrounding the first lady.

The situation surrounding Ms. Kim's absence continues to evolve, leaving South Korean citizens and political observers alike speculating about the future implications for both her and President Yoon's administration.


Published March 22nd, 2024 at 13:48 IST