News / Asia

Revelation of N. Korean Leader's Wife Denotes Break with Tradition

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (R) applauds with his wife Ri Sol-Ju (L) during a demonstration performance by the newly formed Moranbong band in Pyongyang in this undated picture released by the KCNA July 9, 2012
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un (R) applauds with his wife Ri Sol-Ju (L) during a demonstration performance by the newly formed Moranbong band in Pyongyang in this undated picture released by the KCNA July 9, 2012
SEOUL – The revelation that North Korea's leader is married is raising questions about the announcement's significance and whether it is a sign of change in the reclusive country. 

Kim Jong Un's spouse was revealed in low-key fashion during a broadcast in Pyongyang Wednesday.  Describing the opening ceremony at the Rungna People's Pleasure Ground, the television announcer noted Kim's presence and that of "his wife, Ri Sol Ju."

The announcer proclaimed that "all the participants enthusiastically welcomed them, loudly shouting "mansei!" - the traditional Korean cheer for long life.

State media did not elaborate about the woman with a short stylish haircut.

Most observers discount reports she appears to be a singer with a nearly identical name who performed during a 2010 New Year's Eve concert in Pyongyang.

Family ties

Several South Korean media reports and one prominent analyst say Kim's wife is 27 years old and holds an advanced degree in natural science. Her father is reported to be a college professor and her mother a hospital administrator.

South Korea’s National Intelligence Service reportedly told a briefing for national assembly members some different background information. According to an opposition lawmaker, the spy agency believes Ri was born in 1989, studied vocal music in China and married Kim in 2009. It also says she visited South Korea in 2005 as a member of a cheerleading squad for an inter-Korean athletic event.

Some reports say she recently underwent six months of "first lady training." And there is speculation Kim may have fathered a daughter with Ri.

Considering what little information is typically revealed about North Korea's leadership, such details might never be officially confirmed.

Break with tradition

But Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, says the latest revelation heralds a clear break with tradition. Yang contends this demonstrates North Korea is preparing to open and reform. But Professor Yang says the public revelation of the marriage also carries risks for Kim.

Yang says both of North Korea's previous leaders had several wives and it is difficult to predict how many spouses Kim Jong Un will have. Thus, it is quite a bold and unprecedented move for him, Yang says, considering almost nothing was revealed publicly by Kim's grandfather and father about their private lives.

Kim, believed to be 29, came to power following the death of his father last December. Yang predicts  His wife will also play another unprecedented role.

The professor foresees Kim Jong Un's wife eventually accompanying her husband in summit diplomacy with officials from South Korea, China and Russia in line with a trend of international society.

Diplomatic relations

Asked about the revelation the leader of impoverished North Korea is indeed married, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland responded diplomatically.

"We would always wish any kind of newlyweds well as they embark," she noted. "But obviously our concerns, first and foremost, are for the North Korean people and our hope that conditions for them and that the new DPRK leadership will make the right choice about opening the country and providing more for their people."

Neither Washington nor Seoul has diplomatic relations with Pyongyang.

What S. Koreans think

Opinions from inside North Korea are difficult to obtain. But in the South Korean capital, Seoul, some people shared with VOA their initial assessment of the North's first couple.

Yang Chul-hwa, 75, a native of Kaesong in the North, says the revelation is meant to give people a positive impression of North Korea and Kim Jong Un.

A 54-year-old woman, who only wanted to be identified by her family name, Jung, remarks this never happened during the era of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung and his son, Kim Jong Il. She says Kim Jong Un is from a different generation and studied in Switzerland so it is easier for him to reveal his wife. This, she says, will allow North Korea to proceed in opening to the outside world.

Skepticism

But some analysts continue to express skepticism the third generation of Kim family rule will lead to any significant change. They point out Pyongyang continues to spout bellicose rhetoric at Seoul and continues to take a hardline approach on its nuclear and missile development programs.

But much attention has been focused on recent cosmetic changes, such as a musical performance featuring contemporary music and a dancer in an imitation Mickey Mouse costume. It was at that July 6 performance that attention was drawn to Ri, seen sitting alongside Kim.

Youmi Kim in the VOA Seoul bureau contributed to this report

Steve Herman

A veteran journalist, Steve Herman is VOA's Southeast Asia Bureau Chief and Correspondent, based in Bangkok.

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