In the News – That Mystery Woman in North Korea? Turns Out She’s the First Lady
SEOUL, South Korea — She was first spotted at a gala concert for the country’s who’s who, dressed in a trim black suit in the Chanel tradition. Then she popped up at a kindergarten, trailing photographers who caught images of her smiling gently at children playing on a slide. Her latest appearance, at the inauguration of an amusement park, was yet another star turn: the cameras zooming in on the slim woman with the easy smile and fashionable polka-dot jacket.
Ri Sol-ju’s sudden appearance in the spotlight on Wednesday, in a photo from the amusement park visit, had all the trappings of a Kate Middleton moment.
Except this is North Korea, and Ms. Ri’s tantalizing public appearances were less a debut than a typically opaque North Korean-style acknowledgment that the mysterious 20-something leader of the country had taken a wife. State media made that clear with little fanfare, almost as an afterthought, in an announcement that the new amusement park had opened in Pyongyang.
“While a welcoming song was resonating,” state television intoned, “Marshal Kim Jong-un appeared at the ceremony site, with his wife, Comrade Ri Sol-ju.”
The fact that Ms. Ri was introduced publicly at all was considered significant, the latest sign for North Korea analysts that Mr. Kim was breaking from the leadership style of his father, a dour man who was known for marrying beautiful performers but who never introduced them to the public.
“Secrecy and shadows characterized the 17-year rule ofKim Jong-il,” said John Park, a research fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University. “In contrast, Kim Jong-un has already shown a pattern of being more open and engaging. He appears to enjoy public events and interacting with children and the common soldier. Many of these recent appearances look like a re-enactment of his grandfather’s mingling with the people in better times.”
The introduction of Ms. Ri followed weeks of surprises from Mr. Kim. First he was shown at the concert, beaming during a performance by Mickey Mouse, formerly considered a symbol of the corrupt West. Then he fired a hard-line top general and was reported to have taken away important financial perks from the military, moves that analysts saw as signs that he was trying to tame the powerful army — and even possibly make economic reforms that could allow the country to open up a bit to the world.
The announcement of his marriage, analysts said, seemed to be a continuation of what is either a policy change, or a propaganda offensive, or both.
“It would put some of his new policies into the context of a North Korean version of Camelot,” Mr. Park said. “A dynamic and charismatic first lady could be very helpful in creating this image of Camelot. It’s definitely an uphill battle, but this image could generate some initial momentum.”
“Uphill,” in this case, is an enormous understatement. North Korea remains one of the world’s most tightly controlled police states, with active gulags where defectors say torture and death are commonplace and one where failed economic policies helped lead to mass starvation in the 1990s and widespread food shortages that continue today.
For Mr. Kim, analysts say, a change in tone could speak to a young generation that is slowly learning about the world — and its own country’s failings — through a proliferation of smuggled cellphones and South Korean television shows. Ms. Ri’s fashion sense, they say, appears to be part of the building of a youthful new image; for years North Korean women were pictured only in traditional billowing dresses or Mao-style work clothes.
It is difficult to judge how important Ms. Ri’s ascension will prove to be in the realm of policy.
Mr. Kim has reportedly made a few significant changes since coming to power after the death of his father in December. They include publicly acknowledging some failures that his father and grandfather would almost certainly have hidden. He has been much more blunt about the food shortages, vowing to do more to ensure his people will not go hungry, and he admitted that an important rocket launching was a bust. He is even reported to be backing a program to allow hundreds of North Koreans to work in China to bring in much needed foreign currency, a risky plan that could expose many more of his countrymen to the world after decades of a virtual information blackout.
But defectors and others with contacts inside North Korea say his government has also tightened control on its border with China to keep disaffected North Koreans in, and the increasing trickle of foreign news out. And he shows no signs of backing off the nuclear arms program that has made his country a pariah, nor of abandoning “socialist principles in economic matters.”
It is also a matter of dispute how important the wives and female companions of North Korean leaders are. Confidential cables released by WikiLeaks suggested that at least one source for American government analysts thought the women played an important role. (One cable by the consulate in Shanghai quotes that source as saying that a woman close to Kim Jong-il was “extremely powerful” and the person deciding who had access to him.) Others, however, have suggested that Kim Jong-il’s wives’ most important role was to try to ensure their own progeny ascended to run the nation.
Kim Jong-un’s mother, the winner in the dynastic skirmishing, died years before he was named successor. But according to many analysts in South Korea — whose job is to parse what few details there are on the North — all indications were that she had already convinced her husband that Jong-un would be the strongest leader among his sons.
The understated introduction of Ms. Ri to her people ended weeks of fevered speculation outside the country over who the “mystery woman” suddenly appearing at Mr. Kim’s side was.
Even now, though, much remains unknown. She may be the founder of the girl band, including string players in miniskirts, that performed at the now-famous state concert in which Ms. Ri was seated to Mr. Kim’s right. She appears not, however, to be the old flame that some media reports say Mr. Kim was forced to abandon on his father’s orders.
But almost everything else remains unknown; the world knows more about Kate Middleton’s popular sister, Pippa, than about Ms. Ri, whose age is just one of the remaining mysteries. It is not even clear when Mr. Kim and Ms. Ri married, and analysts said they might already have a child.
North Korea’s first family was not always hidden from view. The veil of privacy descended after Kim Jong-il was designated as his father’s successor in the mid-1970s. Before that, state news media carried reports when Kim Il-sung and the woman believed to be his second wife, Kim Song-ae, met foreign leaders.
After it became clear that Kim Jong-il would succeed his father, that woman dropped out of the news, which instead began building a personality cult around his own mother, who had died when he was 7.
Kim Jong-il himself had at least three known wives, but none was ever identified as the first lady. Like his father before him, he also was thought to surround himself with other beautiful young women. For the current leader, all indications so far are that Ms. Ri has no rivals.