Radiant in new photobook, Kim Jong Un’s wife depicted as part of the royal bloodline

But many North Koreans know Ri Sol Ju as a former singer, undeserving of veneration
By Hyemin Son for RFA Korean
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Radiant in new photobook, Kim Jong Un’s wife depicted as part of the royal bloodline Images from the photobook ‘The People Sing Mt. Baekdu’ published by Pyongyang Publishing House and released on North Korea’s propaganda media ‘Uriminzokkiri’. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his wife, Ri Sol Ju, are sitting side by side by a stream on Mt. Paektu and warming themselves by a bonfire.
Yonhap News

She appears alongside her husband, smiling by a snowy stream on the forested slopes of Mt. Paektu, North Korea’s tallest mountain and a sacred peak said to be tied to the origins of the three-generation Kim Dynasty.

Another image from the recently published photo book, “The People Sing of Mt. Paektu,” shows Kim Jong Un and his wife Ri Sol Ju warming their hands by a fire next to smiling soldiers in winter gear. 

The 100-page propaganda book – being used in educational sessions across the country – venerates the so-called “Paektu bloodline” going back to national founder Kim Il Sung, but in a more personable, family-friendly way than the more bombastic personality cult that Kim Jong Il, the current leader’s father, built around himself.

But what many North Koreans find jarring about the book is its attempt to burnish Ri’s image, “praising her as a noble figure of the Paektu line and a protector of socialism,” a source in South Pyongan province told Radio Free Asia on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

Most citizens know Ri’s relatively humble origins as a singer for the Milky Way Orchestra, once one of North Korea’s most prominent musical acts.

A video of the orchestra performing the song Soldier’s Footsteps in 2011 shows Ri in traditional clothing, belting out militaristic lyrics such as “I lived my life in military uniform as time flowed by. Life has many paths, but I walked the path of revolution.” 

Because she is a well known singer though, people who have seen the photobook wonder why authorities are now trying to connect her to the Paektu line’s revolutionary past. 

“They scoff, asking how the authorities can propagate that she is of the Paektu bloodline, when most people know she was a singer in a performance group,” said the source, who said the book has been used during morning educational sessions for workers at several companies that have offices at the Unsan Pharmaceutical Plant where he works.

Pumping up her image

Though Ri Sol Ju married Kim Jong Un in 2009, she was only introduced to the public as his wife three years later, shortly after her husband became the country’s ruler. 

It is believed that Kim and Ri are parents of three children, including a girl named Ju Ae, who recently made several appearances with her father.

North Korea has been pumping up Ri’s status in recent years. In 2018, state media began calling her “Respected First Lady,” a title that hadn’t been used for 40 years. She has also made several public appearances with her husband over the past few years, including state visits abroad, something previous leader’s wives and consorts never did.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (center right) and his wife Ri Sol Ju (right) pose for photos with China's President Xi Jinping (center left) and his wife Peng Liyuan during Xi's visit in Pyongyang, North Korea in this undated photo released on June 21, 2019 by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). Credit: Reuters

Being a former singer detracts from the idealized image of a first lady and could tarnish Kim Jong Un’s image, Ken Gause, director of Strategy, Policy, Plans and Programs Division Special Projects at the Virginia-based Center for Naval Analyses, told RFA.

“Especially in a culture like North Korea, where there's a certain harshness and certain purity, where they try to portray the leader as being above the kind of, normal sort of careers that some people would have, especially, dancers and things like that,” said Gause.

No images of revolutionary heroine

Curiously, the book favors Ri over Kim Il Sung’s first wife, Kim Jong Suk, who is treated as a national heroine for fighting alongside her husband against Japanese colonizers, a source in the northwestern province of North Pyongan told RFA on condition of anonymity to speak freely. 

“There are no photos of Kim Jong Suk,” the second source said, “and she participated in the anti-Japanese revolution.”

So revered is Kim Jong Suk that authorities renamed a county, a naval academy, and several other places after her.

When people compare Ri to Kim Jong Suk they cannot help but see her as unworthy, the sources say.

Another from the photobook ‘The People Sing Mt. Baekdu shows Ri Sol Ju warming her hands by the fire, accompanied by her husband and several members of the military. Credit: Yonhap News

Gause said that it is a mistake to expect Kim Jong Un to create a similar cult in the same vein as his father.

“I have a problem with people talking about Kim Jong Un's personality cult … It's nowhere near what his father's personality cult was,” Gause said.

Some Kim Jong Il myths include the story of his birth on Mt. Paektu, which includes talking animals, multiple rainbows and a new star appearing in the sky. Or his purported score of 18 in his first golf outing. 

“The personality cult has never been along [the same] lines [as his father’s], which are God-like.  He’s more human,” said Gause.

And part of projecting the more human like image is Ri accompanying her husband to public events, something that previous leaders’ wives or mistresses rarely did.

Ri joined Kim on 36 diplomatic events in 2018, according to the North Korean affairs website NK Pro, including a visit to China and three inter-Korean Summits that year.

Translated by Claire Shinyoung Oh Lee and Leejin J. Chung with additional reporting by Eugene Whong. Edited by Eugene Whong, Joshua Lipes and Malcolm Foster. 


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