Korean Central News Agency released this photo on July 9 showing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un accompanied by a young unidentified woman at a band performance in Pyongyang. Credit: KNS/AFP/Getty Images.
Spotted: Smartly dressed woman on the arm of North Korea’s young leader Kim Jong Un, strolling through an amusement park and attending official events.
Not much was known about the 20-something-year-old Kim when he became supreme leader of the isolated and secretive country in 2011 after his father’s death. So it took some by surprise when state television confirmed just this week that his wife was singer Ri Sol Ju, though the two reportedly wed in 2009.
That Ri is seen in public at all is a change from the previous regime. “It’s very new, a very new way of doing things, and it humanizes [Kim],” said Susan Shirk, a professor of China and Pacific relations at the University of California, San Diego. “I think he’s trying to be a different kind of leader.”
Robert Carlin, a visiting scholar at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, said although it’s news to people outside North Korea, many inside the country already knew.
“It still is a big step for them to begin to show her in public and make the announcement that they’re married,” he said.
The question is what kind of role will she have as first lady, and what kind of experiences from her life will she bring to their relationship, said Carlin. “She’s in her late 20s, which means she grew up during the famine period. Where was she? How did she experience it?”
Kim and the same unidentified woman visited the Rungna People’s Pleasure Ground in Pyongyang in this undated photo released July 25. Credit: Reuters/ Korean Central News Agency.
Shirk said people are looking for additional signs of change in North Korea’s leadership, including whether enticing foreign investment will include making economic reforms within the country. “That is the key thing, is he going to try to introduce a more rational economic system to North Korea, market reforms.”
Another difference in leadership attitudes might come by way of travel. Kim’s father was afraid to fly, said Shirk, but if Ri wants to travel — “we might see more of these folks getting around.” Any final thoughts? “I like the way she was dressed.”
- The Guardian has a slide show of the pair at a new amusement park in the capital Pyongyang.
- BBC assembled Kim’s family tree.
- In December, Dartmouth College’s Jennifer Lind and the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Victor Cha discussed the challenges Kim Jong Un faces:
Additional reporting by Daniel Sagalyn. View more on World.