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

US, Brazil's Climate-Change Plan: More Renewables, Less Deforestation

Officials say joint initiative on climate change will allow Brazil, United States to strengthen and accelerate cooperation on issues ranging from land use to clean energy More

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Reporting from Somali capital for past decade, Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal has been working at one of Mogadishu's leading radio stations covering parliament More

After Nearly a Century, Voodoo Opera Rises Again

Opera centers on character named Lolo, a Louisiana plantation worker and Voodoo priestess 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.
Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishui
X
Abdulaziz Billow
June 30, 2015 2:16 PM
Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Texas Defies Same-Sex Marriage Ruling

Texas state officials have criticized the US Supreme Court decision giving same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide. The attorney general of Texas says last week's decision did not overrule constitutional "rights of religious liberty," and therefore officials performing wedding services can refuse to perform them for same-sex couples if it is against their religious beliefs. Zlatica Hoke reports on the controversy.
Video

Video US Gay Marriage Ruling Yields Real-life Impact

Friday’s landmark Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage throughout the United States is an outcome few thought possible just years ago, and shows a nation that increasingly tolerates and even celebrates the hopes and aspirations of gay people. VOA’s Michael Bowman spoke to a same-sex couple that will benefit from the high court ruling, and to a Christian scholar who is apprehensive about its potential consequences for America’s faith community.
Video

Video Syrians Flee IS Advance in Hasaka

The Syrian government said Monday it has taken back one of several districts in Hasaka overrun by Islamic State militants. But continued fighting elsewhere in the northern city has forced thousands of civilians from their homes. In this report narrated by Bill Rodgers, VOA Kurdish Service reporter Zana Omer describes the scene in Amouda, where some of the displaced are taking refuge.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.
Video

Video S. Korea Christians Protest Gay Rights Festival

The U.S. Supreme Court decision mandating marriage equality nationwide has energized gay rights supporters around the world. Gay rights remain a highly contentious issue in a key U.S. ally, South Korea, where police did a deft job Sunday of preventing potential clashes between Christian protesters and gay activists. Kurt Achin reports from Seoul.
Video

Video Saudi Leaks Expose ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’ In Battle With Iran

Saudi Arabia’s willingness to wield its oil money on the global diplomatic stage appears to have been laid bare, after the website WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of leaked cables from Riyadh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Nubians in Kenya Face Land Challenges

East Africa's ethnic Nubians have a rich cultural history that dates back thousands of years, but in Kenya they are facing hardships, including the loss of lands they have lived on for generations. They say the government has reneged on its pledge to award them title deeds for the plots. VOA's Lenny Ruvaga reports.
Video

Video Syrian Refugees Return to Tal Abyad

Syrian refugees in Turkey confirm they left their hometown of Tal Abyad because of intense fighting and coalition airstrikes, not because Kurdish fighters were engaged in ethnic cleansing, as some Turkish officials charged. VOA Kurdish Service reporter Zana Omer, in Tal Abyad, finds that civilians coming back to the town agree, as we hear in this report narrated by Roger Wilkison.
Video

Video Military Experts Question New Russian Tank Capabilities

Russia has been showing off its new tank design – the Armata T-14. Designers claim it is 20 years ahead of current Western designs - and driving it feels like playing a computer game. But military analysts question those assertions, and warn the cost could be too heavy a burden for Russia’s struggling economy. Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video In Kenya, Police Said to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

An organization that documents torture and extrajudicial killings says Kenyan police were responsible for 1,252 shooting deaths in five cities, including Nairobi, between 2009 and 2014, representing 67 percent of all gun deaths in the areas reviewed. Gabe Joselow has more from Nairobi.
Video

Video In Syrian Crisis, Social Media Offer Small Comforts

Za’atari, a makeshift city in Jordan, may be the only Syrian refugee camp to tweet its activities, in an effort to keep donors motivated as the war in Syria intensifies and the humanitarian crisis deepens. Inside the camp, families say mobile phone applications help hold together families that are physically torn apart. VOA’s Heather Murdock reports.

VOA Blogs