After weeks of speculation and a number of surprising public appearances, there is no longer any doubt over the mystery woman’s identity and her relationship with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. KCNA, the official — and only — state news organization of the DPRK subtly announced the young woman to be Kim’s wife, Ri Sol-ju (contrary to previous South Korean reports, which claimed she was Hyon Song-wol, an already married woman). The article casually mentioned that “Kim Jong-un and his wife Ri Sol-ju were present at the [Rungna Pleasure Grounds] ceremony. All the participants enthusiastically welcomed them, loudly shouting ‘Hurrah!'”
While it may seem like a casual aside, just another propaganda piece about ordinary people welcoming the power couple on a business trip, the announcement has drawn considerable international attention (including even Stephen Colbert). North Korea’s decision to publicly announce Kim’s marital status, along with his new wife’s identity, signals a deliberate shift in governing style from that of his reclusive, playboy father Kim Jong-il. According to John Park, a research fellow for the Belfer Center at Harvard University, Ri’s appearance is yet another sign of Kim’s attempts at mimicking his deeply revered grandfather’s public image, as well as distancing himself from his less popular father:
“Secrecy and shadows characterized the 17-year rule of Kim Jong-il … In contrast, Kim Jong-un has already shown a pattern of being more open and engaging. He appears to enjoy public events and interacting with children and the common soldier. Many of these recent appearances look like a re-enactment of his grandfather’s mingling with the people in better times.”
Interestingly, however, grandson Kim’s taste in women seems to mirror those of his father, Kim Jong-il. Like his father Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un has married a performer (although, in contrast to his father, only one so far). Ri is rumored to be a popular orchestra singer in North Korea (check out a reported video performance of Ri at Shanghaiist).
The political significance of the DPRK’s decision to publicly reveal the first lady, however, appears minimal at best. Although some commentators are quick to anticipate Ri’s appearance as the beginning of “liberal times” in North Korea, the move merely demonstrates, once again, young Kim’s efforts to revive the image and policies of his grandfather, Kim Il-sung (who also used to bring his wife along to meet with foreign officials). It’s an understandable strategy. Kim Il-sung enjoyed immense popularity as a father- and God-like figure who ruled through much better economic times. An effort to draw comparisons to the “Dear Leader” and founder of the DPRK makes sense. (Throughout his rule, Kim Jong-il tried to deflect attention to Kim Il-sung too, as he declared his father, and not himself, the eternal president of the DPRK.)
More worrisome, though, is the lack of any serious policy change in the current regime. While the “juche” (self-reliance) ideology and aggressive military posture may have worked in the early days of the DPRK, today North Korea faces much bigger challenges. Due to poor economic decisions in the 1980s, aggressive nuclear developments that draw the world’s condemnation, and a terrible food shortage in the 1990s which led to millions dead, North Korea is struggling for stability — and has been for decades.
To put it lightly, as the New York Times did, “North Korea remains one of the world’s most tightly controlled police states, with active gulags where defectors say torture and death are commonplace and one where failed economic policies helped lead to mass starvation in the 1990s and widespread food shortages that continue today.” While Kim may be putting on a family-friendly appearance with his newly debuted wife, the official policies of his regime continue to be anything but.