North Korea First Lady
SEOUL, South Korea — She was first spotted at a gala concert for the country’s who’s who, dressed in a trim black suit in the Chanel tradition. Then she popped up at a kindergarten, trailing photographers who caught images of her smiling gently at children clambering up a slide. Her latest appearance, at the inauguration of an amusement park, was yet another star turn: the cameras zooming in on the slim woman with the easy smile and fashionable polka-dot jacket.
Ri Sol-ju’s sudden appearance in the spotlight on Wednesday, in a photo from the amusement park visit, had all the trappings of a Kate Middleton moment.
Except this is North Korea, and Ms. Ri’s tantalizing public appearances were less a debut than a typically opaque North Korean-style acknowledgment that the mysterious 20-something leader of the country had taken a wife. State media made that clear with little fanfare, almost as an afterthought, in an announcement that a new amusement park had opened in Pyongyang.
“While a welcoming song was resonating,” state television intoned, “Marshal Kim Jong-un appeared at the ceremony site, with his wife, Comrade Ri Sol-ju.”
The fact that Ms. Ri was introduced publicly at all was considered significant, the latest sign for North Korea analysts that Mr. Kim was breaking from the leadership style of his father, a dour man who was known for marrying beautiful performers but who never introduced them to his people.
“Secrecy and shadows characterized the 17-year rule of Kim Jong-il,” said John Park, a research fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University. “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.”
The introduction of Ms. Ri followed two weeks of surprises from Mr. Kim. First he was shown at the concert, beaming during a performance by Mickey Mouse, formerly considered a symbol of the corrupt West. Then he fired a hard-line top general and was reported to have taken away important perks from the military, moves that analysts saw as signs that he was trying to tame the powerful 1.1 million-person army — and even possibly make economic reforms that could allow the country to open up a bit to the world.
The announcement of his marriage, analysts said, seemed to be a continuation of what is either a policy change, or a propaganda offensive, or both.
“It would put some of his new policies into the context of a North Korean version of Camelot,” Mr. Park said. “A dynamic and charismatic first lady could be very helpful in creating this image of Camelot. It’s definitely an uphill battle, but this image could generate some initial momentum.”
“Uphill,” in this case, is an enormous understatement. North Korea remains one of the world’s most tightly controlled police states, a nation 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.
For Mr. Kim, analysts say, a change in tone could speak to a young generation that is slowly learning about the world — and its own country’s failings — through a proliferation of smuggled cellphones and South Korean television shows. Ms. Ri’s fashion sense, they say, appears to be part of that image-building; for years North Korean women were pictured only in traditional billowing dresses or Mao-style work clothes.
It is difficult to judge how important Ms. Ri’s ascension will prove to be in the realm of policy.
Mr. Kim has reportedly made a few substantive changes, including publicly acknowledging some failures that his father and grandfather would almost certainly have hidden. Amid debilitating food shortages, he has mentioned a “food problem” and vowed to fix it, and he admitted that an important rocket launching was a bust. He is also reported to be backing a program to allow hundreds of North Koreans to work in China to bring in much needed foreign currency, a risky plan that could expose many more of his countrymen to the world after years of a virtual information blackout. – Nytimes