Ri Sol Ju, North Korea's enigmatic new first lady, is already turning heads and making headlines.
- By Michael Madden<p> Michael Madden is the author and editor of North Korea Leadership Watch, and the author of more than 200 profiles on North Korea's political organizations and political leaders. </p>
In July, when North Korea’s state media identified Ri Sol Ju as the wife of the country’s supreme leader Kim Jong Un, reporting the couple’s visit to an amusement park, the contrast with his father, Kim Jong Il, could not have been starker. State media reports and official accounts of the elder Kim’s activities and behavior never mentioned any of his four (or five) wives or seven children.
In fact, North Korea’s new leader seems to be putting some distance between himself and his father. By allowing the country’s state media to report on his marital status and identify Ri by name, Kim Jong Un has aligned himself more closely to his paternal grandfather, North Korean founding father and president Kim Il Sung, whose first wife Kim Jong Suk is a venerated figure in North Korea’s political culture. State propaganda rarely, if ever, explicitly identifies Kim Jong Un as Kim Jong Il’s son; documentary films, essays, and editorials refer instead only to "bloodline" and "revolutionary family."
That bloodline has become all the more significant in recent weeks, as it has emerged that North Korea’s first lady might be pregnant. On Oct. 29, 2012, Madame Ri made her first reported public appearance with her husband in almost two months, attending a concert and a soccer match. (A source with personal ties to the Kim family ascribed Kim Jong Un’s 20-day gap in public appearances in June to "wanting children.") In the images and video footage of the events published by North Korean state media, Ri wears a long, loose jumper and her face is swollen. Neither still images nor film footage reveals her full figure. All the imagery of her standing is taken from a distance (or without zoom), and there are no close shots of her standing next to her husband; she instead walks directly behind Kim to avoid the camera lenses.
Why would North Korea conceal Ri’s pregnancy? Chalk it up to sheer superstition, a desire to make Kim Jong Un invulnerable and so that Pyongyang image makers can construct their own publicity package for the baby’s birth.
If Kim Jong Un and Ri Sol Ju hosted a baby shower, the two likeliest attendees would be Kim’s older brother, Kim Jong Chol, and his younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, both of whom work as their brother’s aides. Many analysts expected Kim Jong Chol, a sensitive and creative man, to succeed Kim Jong Il. (Kim Jong Chol still seems to be in favor; but he was last seen in February 2011 at an Eric Clapton concert in Singapore and attended his father’s funeral.) We know little about Kim Jong Un’s sister other than that she went to a neighboring school in Switzerland; at one visit to Kim Jong Il’s funerary bier in December 2011, North Korean state media twice showed Kim Yo Jong leading a group of senior officials in bowing to the leader’s remains.
As for Kim Jong Un’s mother, Ko Yong Hui, she died of a heart attack in 2004. According to one account, her sister and her husband defected to the West in 1998; as a boy, Kim Jong Un played basketball with their children, his cousins. Their whereabouts are unknown.
Even less is known about Ri’s family and background. The one reliable detail about their relationship is that theirs was an arranged marriage, a prevalent practice among North Korean elites. Kim Jong Un’s powerful uncle Jang Song Taek, with whom Ri has a close relationship, played matchmaker. Jang Song Taek, who married Kim Jong Il’s sister, is one of the few people in North Korea with complete knowledge of all of Kim Jong Il’s partners and children. Jang is thought to have organized and implemented the framework under which Jong Un and his siblings studied in Switzerland.
North Korea’s first couple married in either 2010 or 2011, suggesting that Kim Jong Il did meet his daughter-in-law before he died. Rumors about Kim Jong Un’s marriage first circulated in October 2010, and initial reports claimed that his wife was an older woman (a so-called "big sister" wife). Japanese and South Korean media reports say that her father is a physics professor, while her mother is a gynecologist, and has a background in the performing arts. Ri reportedly traveled with a North Korean music ensemble to Japan in 2002 and was a cheerleader at an inter-Korean athletic competition in 2005. Before her introduction in North Korean state media in July, Ri appeared during Kim Jong Il’s funeral in December 2011 and visited Ku’msusan (the mausoleum where the bodies of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il lie) on Kim Jong Il’s birthday in February 2012.
Given the unusual candor with which Kim Jong Un eventually publicized his marriage, Pyongyang watchers might be able to anticipate a birth announcement. It will be interesting to see whether we learn about the baby through a direct disclosure in state media, or if it only will be implied. If a birth announcement is made, it would strongly suggest that changes in the Kim Jong Un era are more than merely cosmetic. And it would likely mean that the Kim family fully intends to pass on its power to a new generation.