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.

You May Like

Disappointing Report on China's Economy Shakes Markets

In London and New York shares lost 3 percent, while Paris and Germany dropped around 2.4 percent More

DRC Tries Mega-Farms to Feed Population

Park at Boukanga Lonzo currently has 5,000 hectares under cultivation, crops stretching as far as eye can see, and is start of ambitious large-scale agriculture plan More

Video War, Drought Threaten Iraq's Marshlands

Areas are spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, a resting place for migrating wildfowl, source of livelihood for fishermen and herders who have called the marshes home for generations More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOAi
X
August 31, 2015 2:17 AM
Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOA

Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video War, Drought Threaten Iraq's Marshlands

Iraq's southern wetlands are in crisis. These areas are the spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, a resting place for migrating wildfowl, and source of livelihood for fishermen and herders. Faith Lapidus has more.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Rebuilding New Orleans' Music Scene

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans, threatening to wash away its vibrant musical heritage along with its neighborhoods, the beat goes on. As Bronwyn Benito and Faith Lapidus report, a Musicians' Village is preserving the city's unique sound.
Video

Video In Russia, Auto Industry in Tailspin

Industry insiders say country relies too heavily on imports as inflation cuts too many consumers out of the market. Daniel Schearf has more from Moscow.
Video

Video Scientist Calls Use of Fetal Tissue in Medical Research Essential

An anti-abortion group responsible for secret recordings of workers at a women's health care organization claims the workers shown are offering baby parts for sale, a charge the organization strongly denies. While the selling of fetal tissue is against the law in the United States, abortion and the use of donated fetal tissue for medical research are both legal. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.

VOA Blogs