The public ceremony unveiling the wife of the newly anointed hereditary dictator of North Korea was anything but traditional. The couple was revealed to North Koreans and the world Wednesday, via descriptions by state media of a “ceremony which took place with splendor” at the opening of a “fun fair” in Pyongyang where 28-year-old Kim Jong-un and “his wife, Comrade Ri Sol Ju” were accompanied by top army commanders, the head of the feared secret police, and “officials of party, armed forces and power bodies” who “enthusiastically welcomed them, loudly shouting ‘Hurrah!’”
“A soldier builder and woman worker presented them with flowers,” gushed Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), the official state media organ. It must be daunting to get married knowing you have 24 million in-laws—the Kim leaders have been portrayed as the parents of the nation.
Ri Sol Ju is said to be a 27-year old graduate student at Kim Il-sung University, pursuing a Ph. D in science, and her family is from the political elite. Her mother reportedly heads a gynecology unit at a local hospital and her father is a university professor. Ri Sol Ju reportedly married Kim Jong-un in 2009 or 2010, and gave birth to a child the following year.
Typical of the Kabuki theater that is North Korea—where everything is carefully scripted by state propagandists in the world’s most closed and secretive state—still virtually nothing is known about the new leader of the nuclear state that boasts the fourth largest army in the world. And the same was true of the woman who has been accompanying him to recent events—until the new revelation.
On July 6, Kim Jong-un had attended a concert accompanied by the entire elite leadership of the military, communist party, and the state. Performers dressed as Disney characters Minnie Mouse and Tigger danced, while footage from Snow White, Dumbo, and Beauty and the Beast was shown on the stage. Next to Kim, in a throne-like chair, sat an attractive, unidentified woman sporting a yellow polka-dot designer dress, chic white jacket, and a modern, short haircut.
The spectacle received predictable saturation and reverent coverage by the state media, but the woman sitting next to the leader went unmentioned, despite her placement next to the supreme leader and alongside the regime’s military leadership, on one of the country’s most important days.
The silence prompted a frenzy of speculation among the international media, with reporters and sleuths combing official photographs and attendance lists for clues of the identity of the mystery woman.
The couple was seen again on July 8, accompanied by the central leadership, at Memorial Palace of the Sun, where Kim’s grandfather lies in state, as they commemorated the 18th anniversary of Kim Il-sung’s death. And again, on July 15, when the pair visited a kindergarten. The sightings sparked headlines around the world.
“Kim Jong-un’s mystery woman revealed: Dictator’s companion is married pop star who his father banned,” blared The Daily Mail on July 10.
“North Korean leader ‘having affair with married singer,’” wrote Newstrack India on July 10.
“Kim Jong-un’s ‘mystery woman’ sparks global curiosity,” France24 television declared on July 11.
Was she his girlfriend, his wife, or sister? Many speculated that the young dictator’s wife was pop singer Hyon Song-Wol, known for songs such as “Excellent Horse-Like Lady” whose lyrics include a reference to a “well-bred horse maiden.”
When Kim Il-sung ruled, the “Great Leader” and his wife appeared publicly with the likes of Nicolae Ceausescu, the Romanian dictator, and Cambodia King Norodom Sihanouk. But when his son, the late Kim Jong-il, assumed the reins in the 1990s, that woman—his stepmother—disappeared from state propaganda, replaced by the “Dear Leader”s’ mother, who had never been mentioned previously, and who had died in childbirth in 1949. Kim Jong-il had at least four wives or consorts, but none ever appeared in public, or was mentioned in official media.
Kim Jong-un himself was never mentioned or seen in public prior to his unveiling as heir apparent in 2010. But last month, his own mother, Ko Yong-hui, a former dancer born in Japan, was introduced in a propaganda video as the “mother” of North Korea. Kim Jong-un’s mother is identified under the alias Ri U’n-sil, and in the film made for party cadre, attends military and economic inspections with Kim Jong-il. Ko is portrayed speaking in the film over still images of her nurturing Kim Jong-un. The video ends with footage of Kim Jong-un from 2010 and 2011. Ko Young-hui died of breast cancer in exile in Paris in 2004. Weeks after the video premiered, Kim Jong-un’s “mystery companion” began showing up at state functions.
Analysts, who have examined state propaganda and media, where every appearance or mention of a name is intentional and meaningful, have found several other pictures of the wife of Kim Jong-un, who took power in December. She appears crossing the path of the most senior state leaders in the days after the death of Kim Jong-il. Analysts at the time noted that the unidentified woman could only be a person of great consequence and speculated that it was the young Kim’s sister, who rarely appears in state media.
Then at the birthday ceremonies for the late Kim Jong-il in February, Kim Jong-un’s new wife attended a gathering of the central leadership as North Korean elites lined up to pay their respects. Several rows behind Kim Jong-un, in a gathering of the top cadres of the National Defense Commission and Personal Secretariat, was Kim Jong-il’s fifth consort and secretary, Kim Ok. Standing to her right was a woman since identified as Kim Jong-un’s wife. She seemed oddly out of place, analysts noted at the time.
By this month’s series of high-profile appearances, speculation about the woman’s identity had reached fever pitch. On Wednesday, state television finally identified her as “his wife, Comrade Ri Sol Ju” during the opening of the People’s Amusement Park.
Analysts say, however, that the mystery is far from over. For one thing, Ri Sol Ju almost certainly is a pseudonym—leaving the question of what her true identity is.
What we do know is that so far, the supreme commander, Marshal Kim Jong-un, has taken his wife to a Mickey Mouse concert, a mausoleum, a kindergarten, a funeral, and an amusement park—what passes for a honeymoon in the Potemkin village that is North Korea.