Asia Pacific

North Korea's first lady: From cheerleader to global stage

Reuters

Ri Sol Ju first traveled to South Korea more than a decade ago as a cheerleader for North Korea’s 2005 athletics team.

On Friday she returned as the wife of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, sharing the global stage with her husband after a historic summit that pledged to end more than 60 years of conflict on the Korean Peninsula.

In matching bright pink skirt and jacket and glittery black high heels, Ri smiled as she was greeted by her South Korean counterpart, Kim Jung-sook, and later by the leaders of the two Koreas.

“I was so glad to hear the summit went well,” Ri told South Korean President Moon Jae-in as the four spoke briefly in the lobby of the Peace House on the South Korean side of the border with North Korea.

It was the first time any North Korean leader had brought his wife to a summit with a South Korean president. Kim’s father and grandfather, who led North Korea before him, had never taken their wives to official meetings with other heads of state.

His father, Kim Jong Il, was never seen in public with any of his wives.

Little is known about Ri, including her exact age, when she married Kim or whether they had a wedding ceremony.

South Korean intelligence officials have said Ri and Kim have three children.

Her style and attire have often been the focus of media attention, with state-distributed photographs showing designer handbags by Dior and Chanel hanging off her shoulder.

Ri posed for photographs with her husband, Moon and Moon’s wife ahead of the dinner, holding a black clutch and wearing pink lipstick and eye shadow before attending a dinner hosted by Moon.

In contrast, her sister-in-law, Kim Yo Jong, who accompanied Kim Jong Un to the summit from the start on Friday, wore a gray two-piece skirt suit and a pair of modest low, black heels.

Ri’s first official appearance as Kim’s wife in North Korean state media was in July 2012 at an opening ceremony for an amusement park, seen holding on to Kim’s arm affectionately as they toured the grounds.

Image consultants say she has helped create a softer, more approachable image for Kim that has aided him as he seeks to burnish his credentials as a world leader.

During his surprise visit to China last month, Chinese state television gave similar coverage to Kim’s visit with President Xi Jinping as they did to Xi’s meetings with U.S. President Donald Trump last year.

Ri was there with her husband and met Xi and Chinese first lady Peng Liyuan, winning praise from social media users in China who called her “beautiful” and compared her to pop stars.

“Kim Jong Un wants to be seen as a respected state leader inside his country and out,” said Jeong Yeung-tae, head of the Institute of North Korea Studies in Seoul.

“By bringing his wife along, he’s saying: ‘Look at me, I’m as much of a country leader as you are.'”

Ri’s status within North Korea has also risen in recent weeks after state media began referring to her as “first lady” during Kim and Ri’s visit to China.

That was the first time the title had been used in North Korea in more than 40 years.

Prior to this, Ri had been called “comrade” or simply the wife of Kim.

According to South Korea’s Ministry of Unification, the last time North Korean state media referred to someone as “first lady” was in 1974 for Kim Song Ae, the wife of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Un’s grandfather.

State media has also called her “respected Ri Sol Ju,” an adjective rarely used for members other than the North’s leadership. Kim Yo Jong is referred to by her party position.

Analysts said that doesn’t mean Ri is of a higher rank than the leader’s sister.

“In North Korea, the wife of the leader does not have many roles. … If the wife tries to do something political, then she would have a hard time,” Jeong said.

“The sister has a powerful role as her brother’s helper. At the end of the day, Ri is just Kim Jong Un’s wife,” he added.

Friday’s summit and one with the United States are expected to lend more information about the couple.

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