Asia Pacific

Wife of North Korea's Kim makes first public appearance in nearly four months

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

The wife of Kim Jong Un made her first appearance in state media Wednesday after a nearly four-month absence, showing up in photos accompanying the North Korean leader on a visit to a flagship tourist development with the South that Kim condemned as an eyesore and ordered demolished.

Ri Sol Ju was seen in photos released with a report by the official Korean Central News Agency during Kim’s trip to the Mount Kumgang resort area on the country’s scenic eastern coast.

In a stark illustration of dire relations between Pyongyang and Seoul, KCNA reported that Kim had ordered the removal of “unpleasant-looking” hotels, restaurants and tourist attractions constructed by South Korea at the resort.

While the resort was developed more than a decade ago as a symbol of collaboration, South Korean tours have been suspended since 2008 after one of its tourists was shot dead by a North Korean soldier for crossing into an off-limits zone.

Though her name was not mentioned among those accompanying Kim, including his sister, Kim Yo Jong, it was Ri’s first reported public activity since June. Prior to Wednesday’s photos, Ri was last seen in public when Chinese President Xi Jinping made his first visit to Pyongyang on June 20 and 21.

Reasons behind her unusual 122-day absence from the spotlight were unclear. State media reports had mentioned her about once a month since last year, when it began referring to her as “respected first lady” instead of “comrade” — a move seen as Kim attempting to adopt a more statesman-like approach amid his unprecedented diplomatic push in 2018.

It was reportedly the first time in more than 45 years that the title was used by Pyongyang.

The move also solidified her status during a year in which Kim held summits with several world leaders, including U.S. President Donald Trump, Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Ri, a former singing star, first burst onto the scene in 2012 and has been widely regarded as one of the most high-profile women in a deeply patriarchal country, but with a limited role.

Her recent absence was not the first time she had disappeared from the public view.

In 2016, she was not seen in state media for about nine months, spawning speculation that she might have been pregnant or have given birth to a baby.

Very little is known about Ri, who is believed to be 28-33 years old and thought to have had three children with Kim, at least one of them a daughter.

South Korean intelligence reports have described her as coming from an ordinary family with a teacher father and a doctor mother. A former member of the North’s Unhasu orchestra, she reportedly attended a music school in China and visited South Korea in 2005 as a cheerleader for her country’s squad in an international sporting event.

Unlike his father and grandfather, Kim has been far more open to being seen accompanied by the key women in his life, namely his wife and sister.

Some North Korea watchers have pointed to the marginalization of Kim’s mother, Ko Yong Hui, after her death as a major factor driving their expanded role.

Although Ko was a consort of late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and mother of three of his children, attempts at fostering a cult of personality around her had foundered over her background. Reports have said that Ko was born in postwar Osaka, where her father had worked in a sewing factory that made uniforms for the wartime Japanese military. Such a revelation would effectively be a death sentence for Kim since the grandfather was a “collaborator” under North Korea’s songbun socio-political classification system — a grouping that Kim’s paternal grandfather, country founder Kim Il Sung, said “must be eliminated through three generations.”

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