The West’s intelligence on the newly appointed DPRK regime is so sparse that one woman’s appearance beside Kim Jong-un has sparked a number of media speculations. During a publicly broadcast performance in Pyongyang yesterday, a mystery woman appeared right beside Kim. The international media’s focus has been on deciphering what this mystery woman’s close public placement might mean. Who is she? What is her relationship to Kim? And, more importantly, what does her public appearance tell us about the new regime’s direction?
Who Is She?
In a tightly closed country like North Korea, any speculation is difficult due to an astonishing lack of information. The outside world did not see a picture of Kim until 2010, and to this day the leader’s age remains unconfirmed (North Korea claims he is 30 years-old, however most foreign estimates place his age around 25-28 years-old).
This lack of information has not stopped media outlets and experts from voicing their opinions on the supposed identity of this woman. Speculations have hit a wide range of possibilities. It could be his aunt, wife, sister, or lover. One South Korean newspaper even suggested that she might be “a lover of the new leader’s late father, Kim Jong-il.” (A real possibility, as the now-deceased former leader had a reputation for illegitimate affairs and a lavish lifestyle.)
Most reasonable conjectures say she is likely Kim’s wife, although the other possibilities cannot be ruled out. In a CNN article published today, expert Andrei Lankov stressed that she is probably Kim’s wife, for it would be “unthinkable” for the North Korean leader to present a girlfriend or lover in public. Cheong Seong-chang, a senior fellow at the Sejong Institute, agreed, citing the appearance as a “timely” one to reveal the new leader’s wife to the public.
Why Would the DPRK Reveal Her Now?
Any officially released material from the North is always tailor-made to show only what the regime wants you to see. So, like a finely crafted film, the viewer knows that every visible detail is there for a reason. This is precisely why her presence has been scrutinized so highly.
One speculation is that her appearance was meant to portray Kim as something of a family man. In his short time as ruler, Kim has already emphasized this image by repeatedly appearing in photos smiling warmly with young schoolchildren. Kim has also made a point to draw comparisons between himself and his grandfather, the loved DPRK founder and Dear Leader Kim Il-sung.
Or, perhaps her appearance was designed to create an image in stark contrast to that of the isolated and aloof image of his father, Kim Jong-il. According to Lankov, the strategy from the DPRK leadership might be to present Kim as “much more approachable, human-like and soft on people” than his father, Kim Jong Il. “He travels much more than his father and even than his grandfather. He likes to hug everybody, physically hug. In this regard it’s probably he decided that it might be a good idea to hint that he does have a wife.”
Her appearance may also help Kim with another image problem. One of the initial concerns over the new leader centered on his young age and inexperience (which is likely why the North Korean government hides his official age and claims he is older than he really is). By portraying Kim as a husband, it may alleviate concerns over his youth. According to Cheong, his apparent age is Kim’s “biggest handicap” and revealing the possibility of a wife might make North Koreans “more comfortable” with his youthful appearance. (Although, Kim’s choice of an unauthorized Disney performance seems to fly in the face of this objective.)
Does This Signal a Change in North Korea?
Many media writers are eager to ask what implications this appearance might have for a possible change in the DPRK regime’s mentality. Kim Il-sung’s wife was hardly ever seen and, according to Lankov, her “existence was never even hinted at.” Journalists are quick to note that Kim’s choice of a performance scattered with an array of Western icons (Disney characters) and band members with trendy, strapless dresses seems to mark a change from the past as well.
While these images are indeed striking (and puzzling), it would be rash to say that they signal any significant signs of change in the regime. In many aspects, Kim has merely returned to the DPRK policies of the past; returning to a “juche” (self-reliance) mentality of his grandfather, keeping the North tightly closed both politically and economically, and continuing the aggressive forward posture and nuclear development of his father.
Although these recent developments may give us more of an insight into Kim’s image and tastes, any changes thus far have been merely superficial.