First lady publicity latest sign of N.K. change

2012-07-26 20:09

Kim Jong-un’s wife visited South Korea in 2005, intelligence agency confirms

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un continues to shake off the regime’s long-held tradition of secrecy, intriguing watchers eager to find signs of change in the reclusive state.

In the latest breakaway, Pyongyang’s state media late Wednesday confirmed that the mystery woman beside the 20-something leader at recent public events is his wife, Ri Sol-ju.

Ri has fueled rampant speculation in recent weeks about her identity. She accompanied Kim on visits to an amusement park, kindergarten and concert, looking chic, confident and comfortable. 

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (center) and his wife Ri Sol-ju (right) attend the opening ceremony 
of the Rungna People‘s Pleasure Ground on Rungna Islet along the Taedong River 
in Pyongyang, Wednesday. (AP-Yonhap News/KCNA via KNS)

The couple’s public appearances and the brief declaration of Kim’s marital status stand out against his father Kim Jong-il’s style. During his 17-year rule, the elder Kim maintained a secret life and his companions and children were rarely discussed in public. He also kept Jong-un to himself until an official introduction in late 2010.

Analysts said the latest announcement was strategically calibrated and aimed at forging a settled image of the youthful leader, who inherited power after the December death of the longtime autocrat.

“It can be interpreted as Kim Jong-un’s willingness to disentangle himself from his father, who maintained the abnormal custom that the leader’s wife is not subject to public exposure,” said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior researcher with the Sejong Institute.

“It may also reflect a Western influence on Kim given his experience of studying in Switzerland for four years and a half, where couples in public are routine.”

The North’s broadcaster did not give details about Ri or her marriage to Kim. 

The South’s intelligence agency confirmed that Ri is 23 years old and visited the western port city of Incheon in September 2005 for the Asian Athletics Championships as a member of North Korea's cheering squad. 

A woman presumed to be Ri waves to South Koreans while departing from Incheon International Airport on Sept. 5, 2005. She was a member of North Korea’s cheering squad at the Asian Athletics Championships held in Incheon. (Yonhap News)

She is rumored to be a former member of an art company and to have choreographed the July 7 performance by the Moranbong Troupe, which featured Mickey Mouse and Hollywood film tunes. In February 2011, the North’s KCTV aired a video clip of a separate concert presenting a female singer with the same name and a similar appearance.

Yonhap News cited an unnamed source as saying that Ri received six months of training at the elite Kim Il-sung University to be the reclusive country’s first lady.

“I believe she led the formation of Moranbong based on her experience and is currently in charge of the band’s overall shows,” the source was quoted as saying.

Cheong refuted the claims, saying that Ri married Kim in 2009 while pursuing her master’s or doctoral degree in science at Kim Il-sung University and gave birth to a daughter in 2010. She was born in 1985 in Cheongjin, North Hamgyeong Province to a professor father and doctor mother, he added.

“She is showing her focus on accompanying Kim for now, but is expected to carry out independent public activities pertaining to foster care and light industries in the course of time,” Cheong said.

A Unification Ministry official said all the statements were not yet verified.

Signs of change have been detected in the North amid a series of the fledgling leader’s public appearances that highlight his apparent efforts to resuscitate the moribund economy and the people’s livelihoods.

With his newly minted marshal title, Kim appears to be devising a more open, practical policy line as he has sought to normalize the role of the Cabinet and shrink the inordinate influence of conservative military rulers.

On July 16, he sacked Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho, a hardline military heavyweight and one of his father’s loyal aides, a move differentiating him from his father who had bolstered the role of the military to ineffectively push for lavish state projects during economic hardships.

“I believe that the open, go-ahead face the North has presented recently can be a sign of the right and good choice,” Unification Minister Yu Woo-ik told a forum in Incheon on Thursday.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said the U.S. “would always wish any kind of newlyweds well as they embark.”

“But obviously, our concerns first and foremost are for the North Korean people, and our hope that conditions for them will improve and that the new DPRK leadership will make the right choice about opening the country and providing more for their people," she added.

DPRK is the acronym of North Korea’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

By Shin Hyon-hee (