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The appearance of Ri Sol Ju, the pretty wife of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un: what is its significance?

Posted on August 9, 2012 at 5:25 AM

This article was published in Pressian (www.pressian.com) on July 29, 2012, and has been translated into English and posted here with the permission of the author, Sung-jae Kim, director of the Kim Dae-jung Presidential Library and Museum, Yonsei University.


When the press showed a picture of Kim Jong-un, First Secretary of the Workers’ Party in North Korea, accompanied by a beautiful woman during one of his “on-the-spot” guidance (or field guidance) visits and talking to North Korean people with a smile on his face, the South Korean government and the press were divided on her identity. Some media reports speculated that she must be his younger sister, while others even assumed that she was his common-law wife. Watching the Korean government wander around a maze with regard to the identity of this mysterious woman, observers leveled criticism against the government for its lack of intelligence regarding North Korea.


However, anyone with a basic idea of the socialist system and the North Korean system could have made a correct judgment without having a great deal of information on North Korea. It is not customary for a supreme leader of the socialist system to be accompanied by his wife when providing “on-the-spot” guidance. No Chinese Chief Secretaries and Presidents have ever been accompanied by their wives at official functions. In particular, the late leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il were never accompanied by their wives or any other women for on-the-spot guidance and official functions.

During the Inter-Korean Summit Meeting in 2000, the late South President Kim Dae-jung was accompanied by First Lady Lee Hee-ho, but the North Korean leader Kim Jong-il appeared alone. For these reasons, it was unprecedented for Kim Jong-un to be accompanied by a woman for an on-the-spot guidance session, and to grin at her in a friendly way. This gives us a broad hint that Kim Jong-un is pushing for innovation and an open-door policy, and the woman was supposed to be his wife. 


In fact, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachyov was the first socialist leader to be accompanied by his wife at official functions at home and abroad, and they visited Europe together. At that time, the media in the West widely reported on it, considering it a serious matter, and her fashion made headlines, drawing a lot of interest from the fashion world. The fact that the Soviet President Gorbachyov was accompanied by his wife Raisa Gorbachyov, like Western leaders, suggested that the Soviet Union intended to pursue innovation, or “perestroika” as it was called, and an open-door policy known as glasnost. Noticing what was happening, the Western world proactively welcomed the perestroika and the glasnost pursued by Gorbachyov, and put an end to the cold war, opening a new era of reconciliation. When then South Korean President Roh Tae-woo visited Moscow in 1990 in the course of establishing diplomatic ties with the Soviet Union and when President Gorbachyov visited Jeju-do to participate in a summit meeting in1991, President Gorbachyov was accompanied by his wife in both cases.


It was a rash judgment, made without any knowledge of the North Korean system, to imagine that a woman accompanying the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in public would be his younger sister. Since the North Korean system is led by one supreme leader, it is impossible for a leader to be accompanied by his younger sister. Although the former South Korean President Park Jung-hee was accompanied by his daughter Park Geun-hye as the First Lady, no global leader has ever been accompanied by his younger sister. What is more, the media showed a picture in which North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had locked arms with the woman.


The National Intelligence Service in South Korea belatedly announced that the woman was the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s wife. It also said that the woman, known as Ri Sol Ju, visited Incheon when the 2005 Asian Athletics Championships was held. If Ri Sol Ju did come to Incheon at that time, it is worth giving this deep thought.


Since it is impossible for the supreme leader in North Korea to have a marriage based on love alone, the North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s decision to accept Ri Sol Ju as his daughter-in-law, and thus as his successor’s wife, was far-sighted in terms of inter-Korean relations. Despite the fact that most North Korean women wear hanbok, the traditional Korean garment, the woman was dressed in nice Western clothing. As in other socialist countries, the clothes of the North Korean supreme leader contain an important message. Ri Sol Ju’s suit signifies a tendency toward innovation and an open-door policy. In fact, Mickey Mouse and American popsongs have already been featured in performances in North Korea. This hints at innovation and an open-door policy to the U.S. and the Western world.


Not long ago, North Korea let the entire world know through the North Korean media and Reuter’s News Agency that the First Secretary Kim Jong-un was selected as the Marshal of the State. This report by the Reuter’s News Agency that Kim Jong-un was selected as the head of the republic was not intended to announce that Kim Jong-un had risen in rank. Since Kim Jong-un was already the First Secretary, the First Chairman of the National Defense Commission and theSupreme Commander, there was no need to raise his rank. Nonetheless, he was selected as the Marshal of the State, and this meant that he had seized absolute power over the cabinet, the party and the military, stabilizing the political system. It is taken as meaning that Kim Jong-un has come into power, and that it was possible for him to push for innovation as he has desired. Thus, they wanted to deliver this message to the world through Reuter's News Agency.





The dismissal of Ri Yong-ho, the Chief of the General Staff of the Korean People’s Army, is not simply the result of a power struggle in North Korea. It indicates that Kim Jong-un indeed is eliminating hard line conservatives from the army for the purpose of pursuing innovation and an open-door policy.  This might result in disputes and conflicts due to the opposition of military generals and hardliners who have maintained vested interests for a long period of time. However, Ri Yong-ho’s dismissal indicates that not only the political power but also the purse strings that had been held by the army have been transferred to the new Marshal Kim Jong-un, and it is taken as meaning that North Korea is experiencing a transition from a military-strength-oriented power system to an economy-oriented political system.

The fact that party officers aged 70 orolder were forced to resign shows a will to make a new change and push for innovation and an open-door policy, in a departure from past ways. It is expected that a consistent series of measures to realize innovation and an open-door policy will be taken over time, as Kim Jong-un’s aunt Kim Kyung-eun has authority over personnel affairs as Secretary of the Workers’ Party, and Kim Jong-un’s uncle Chang Song-taek, Vice Chairman of the National Defense Commission has seized control of laws and administration.




Some media reports made sarcastic remarks about Ri Sol Ju herself, a former singer affiliated with Art Troupe, ridiculing Kim Jong-il and his son KimJong-un for marrying an entertainer, but such remarks will only discredit the media and impede the national interest. The North Korean Art Troupe and Unhasu Orchestra are not simply popular entertainers as we know them. Socialist states tend to value the arts, and this is due to the fact that arts based on socialist realism are focused on an aesthetics and philosophy that promote historical development for the purpose of promoting communism. For this reason, the fact that both Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un married members of art troupes has significance. Members of art troupes or painters affiliated with Mansudae Art Studio in North Korea have a high social status, independent of the power structure.  


South Korea has urged North Korea to push for innovation and an open-door policy for a long time. Mischaracterizing North Korean efforts to realize innovation and an open-door policy as womanizing or a power struggle is harmful not only to the peaceful development of the two Koreas but also to the advancement of South Korea. As mentioned in the South Korean media reports, if North Korea had intentionally showed Kim Jong-un accompanied by his wife so that he looked mature after being selected as the Head of the State, the North Korean media would have focused on his authoritative on-the-spot guidance instead of reporting Kim Jong-un riding the rides at an amusement park. In this regard, it is necessary to closely examine the North Korean media reports instead of considering them as laughable gossip.


South Korea needs to pay attention to changes in North Korea while inducing the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un to push for innovation and an open-door policy without opposition by hard line conservatives at home and abroad. It also needs to provide stronger cooperation and support to North Korea than to China, for the prosperity of the Korean people and their future.

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