In the News – N. Korean leader’s wife visited S. Korea in 2005: spy agency

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In the News – N. Korean leader’s wife visited S. Korea in 2005: spy agency

SEOUL, July 26 (Yonhap) — The wife of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un visited South Korea in 2005 as part of a cheering squad for an athletic event, a South Korean lawmaker said Thursday, citing information provided by the South’s spy agency.

The revelation came one day after North Korean media identified the woman recently pictured flanking Kim as his wife, Ri Sol-ju.

South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) confirmed local media reports claiming Ri had visited the South Korean city of Incheon in 2005, Rep. Jung Chung-rai of the main opposition Democratic United Party told reporters after a parliamentary interpellation session attended by Won Sei-hoon, the director of the NIS.

Her visit was during an Asian athletics competition held in Incheon in September of that year, he said.

It is rare for South and North Koreans to visit each other’s countries, as they must receive special permission from their respective governments. The two Koreas remain in a technical state of war following the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty.

NIS officials told lawmakers they believe Ri was born in 1989 and married the North Korean leader in 2009, according to Jung. The leader, whose age has been disputed due to the secretive nature of the reclusive regime, was confirmed to have been born in January 1984, the NIS officials said in the closed-door session.

The spy agency interpreted the North’s disclosure of the first lady as an attempt to give Kim a “stable image,” according to Jung.

News reports have often cited sources familiar with the communist regime as saying Kim lacks the support of his people due to his young age and lack of experience.

The young leader inherited the military-backed regime following the death of his father and longtime leader Kim Jong-il last December.

NIS officials also confirmed reports that Ri is a singer for the North’s Unhasu Orchestra, according to Jung. Details of her background have yet to emerge, but she is believed to have been born into an ordinary family and studied vocal music in China, he said.

Meanwhile, Rep. Yoon Sang-hyun of the ruling Saenuri Party quoted NIS officials as saying North Korea’s former military chief Ri Yong-ho was dismissed earlier this month because of his “uncooperative attitude” toward Kim’s drive to tighten his grip on the military.

North Korea announced Ri’s dismissal last week in a surprise move that fueled speculation about a possible power struggle in Pyongyang.

Asked to explain the “uncooperative attitude,” Yoon said it was related to a generation shift within the 1.2-million-strong armed forces as Kim Jong-un moves to transfer control of the economy from the military to the government.

The lawmaker also quoted NIS officials as saying Ri appeared to have been “purged,” based on a July 21 re-run on North Korean state television of a visit to an orchard by Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un last year. Scenes of Ri, who accompanied the Kims on the trip, were deleted from the clip, he said.

On Kim Jong-un’s aunt Kim Kyong-hui and her husband Jang Song-thaek, both powerful figures in the communist regime, NIS officials said they appear to be strengthening their roles as the young leader’s guardians by respectively providing mental support and policy advice.

It is also the spy agency’s assessment that the North’s three-generation hereditary power succession has been completed with Kim’s promotions to the top levels of the country’s ruling Workers’ Party, government and military.

Following Ri’s dismissal, the North announced its leader had been given the title of marshal, the highest functioning military rank.

The NIS noted it took three years for former leader Kim Jong-il to complete his inheritance of power from his own father, the North’s founding leader Kim Il-sung.

Original Article 

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In the News – That Mystery Woman in North Korea? Turns Out She’s the First Lady

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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.

Original Article 

In the News – Who is North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s ‘mystery woman’

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In the News – Who is North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s ‘mystery woman’

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (C) applauds during a demonstration performance by the newly formed Moranbong band in Pyongyang in this undated picture released by the North"s KCNA July 9, 2012
The mystery woman seen next to Kim Jong-un could be a former pop singer, Hyon Song-wol, reports say

It started with Mickey Mouse.

When North Korea’s state news agency published photos of the country’s leader Kim Jong-un at a concert recently, the first face to catch the attention was on stage.

Amid the dancers and North Korean pop starlets, were a selection of Disney characters – among them Mickey and Minnie Mouse.

And no, the news agencies here in Seoul reported, the North Korean regime had NOT cleared copyright with the Disney Corporation.

It was only hours later that attention switched to another face from that set of photographs – the grainy image of a dark-haired woman sitting next to the young North Korean leader.

The question of who she was, and what she was doing sitting next to the Stalinist regime’s young heir, buzzed through South Korea’s news media.

North Korean media gave no details, but showed her accompanying Kim Jong-un to various state occasions: bowing with him in front of his grandfather’s portrait to mark the 18th anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s death, walking with him in a fitted black skirt suit and heels, and sitting next to him during the concert performances.

Screen grab taken from North Korean TV on July 9, 2012 shows an unidentified woman accompanying Kim Jong-Un (C) during his visit to Kumsusan Palace in Pyongyang on July 8, 2012
There was also speculation that she could be his sister Yo-jong, of whom little is known

‘Wife or sister?’

The Hankyoreh newspaper here in the South said one picture taken during the performances showed the mystery woman with her hand on the armrest of Kim Jong-un’s chair.

The normal posture for those in Kim Jong-un’s entourage is to keep their elbows tucked respectfully in.

This, said the paper, indicated that she was either his wife, or his younger sister.

A similar discussion erupted six months ago, when an unnamed woman appeared beside Kim Jong-un during his father’s funeral commemorations.

It is not known whether Kim Jong-un – believed to be less than 30 years old – has married.

But North Korea’s two previous rulers did not routinely include their partners in public events, leading many to conclude that the new mystery woman is a family member.

‘Excellent Horse-Like Lady’

Not South Korea’s Joongang Ilbo newspaper, though. Its headline this week asked “Is Hyon the new first lady of NK?”

The paper identified Kim Jong-un’s companion as Hyon Song-wol, a former singer with North Korea’s Bochonbo Electronic Music Band, whose popularity, it says, peaked in 1995 with her hit song “Excellent Horse-Like Lady”.

Disney characters at North Korean concert
There are also unanswered questions about Kim Jong-un – Disney characters made an appearance at a recent North Korean concert

She reappeared to perform for the new North Korean leader in March this year, says the paper, after six years away from the limelight, during which time she reportedly married and had a child.

An unnamed South Korean intelligence official was quoted as saying that “the two have known each other since they were in their teens, and… rumours about the two having an affair have been circulating among Pyongyang’s top elite”.

If true, Seoul’s rumour mill goes, what does that say about the workings of North Korea’s new leadership – and more particularly, about the mind of its young leader?

Has Kim Jong-un chosen this smart young woman in western dress as his partner? Is he bucking hoary old tradition by appearing with her – perhaps still married – in public?

As usual, windows into North Korea throw up more questions than answers.

For now, ”mystery woman” she may remain.

But then, let us not forget, after six months in power, the man next to her – the heir to North Korea’s closed “Communist Monarchy” – is only slightly less of a mystery than she.

 

Original Article