In a departure from the North Korean regime’s secrecy about its first ladies, the country’s new and young leader Kim Jong Un is taking a more open approach, appearing with his wife in public and allowing state media to report about their movements.
North Korean state media on Wednesday ended weeks of speculation about the mystery woman who had appeared in photo ops with Kim, naming her as his wife, Ri Sol Ju.
Her appearance at Kim’s side marks a break from past tradition as Kim took over the country from his father Kim Jong Il in December.
Kim Jong Il was never shown in public with any of his wives or mistresses, projecting an intensely private image.
But the younger Kim’s openness about his wife is the latest of several surprising public acknowledgments the young leader has made since taking the reins of the Hermit Kingdom, including a rare and embarrassing admission to the people in April about the failure of a rocket launch in April.
He has also been more open about food shortages, vowing to provide more food for the people, and cultivating an outgoing and informal style, hugging soldiers and posing for photographs with them.
Wiser and friendlier
The unveiling of Kim’s wife, who is believed to be a singer, hints at a more mature image for the young dictator, who is believed to be in his late 20s, as he continues to consolidate power.
"If he went around alone, people would look down on him as a young lad, but with his wife present, he could show he is the head of the family and also an adult," Chang Yong Suk of the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University told Agence France-Presse.
At the same time, the image of the dictator with a wife at his side may make him more relatable to the public, Lee Woo-young, a professor at Seoul's University of North Korean Studies.
"The North seems to be focusing on portraying Kim as a friendly, young, and down-to-earth leader," he said.
A friendlier image would be more like his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, to whom the younger Kim bears a striking physical resemblance, and who was educated abroad like his grandson. Kim Il Sung, the country’s founder, was often shown alongside his wife and with children in his arms.
But Kim’s openness about his wife has not extended to a special public announcement or information about her.
State TV dropped the news of Kim’s wife in the midst of a broadcast about the leader’s visit to a park in Pyongyang, mentioning in passing that his wife had accompanied him on the tour for the opening of the Rungna People’s Pleasure Ground.
“Kim Jong Un and his wife Ri Sol Ju were present at the ceremony,” the English version of the state’s Korean Central News Agency’s report said.
“All the participants enthusiastically welcomed them, loudly shouting ‘Hurrah!’” it said.
It was the first time North Korean media referred to the leader's wife and provided her name, but the reports did not say when the two were married or provide other details of her background.
Much remains unknown about Ri, but a South Korean legislator said Thursday that the couple was married in 2009.
Citing what he said was information given to a closed parliamentary session by the South's National Intelligence Service, legislator Jung Chung Rai said Ri was born in 1989, which would put her age at 22 or 23.
Ri had studied singing in China and visited South Korea’s Incheon in 2005 on a trip by her cheering squad for North Korean teams at the Asian Athletics Championships, he said.
State media have shown Ri with Kim—in photographs or on television—four times, including during a kindergarten tour and a concert featuring Mickey Mouse and other Disney characters.
Reported by Rachel Vandenbrink.