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New role for Kim Jong Un’s wife: First Lady on ‘par with Melania’

Analysts say the ‘First Lady’ title to Ri Sol Ju is a major boost to her status ahead of back-to-back summits with South Korea and United States

world Updated: Apr 19, 2018 17:05 IST
Press Trust of India, Seoul
Kim Jong Un,Melania Trump,First Lady
Ri Sol Ju (left), a former star singer, has been regarded as one of the most high-profile women in North Korea, but with a limited role as Kim Jong Un’s stylish, coy wife.(AFP/File Photo)

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has given his young, stylish wife the title of First Lady in what analysts say is a major boost to her status ahead of back-to-back summits with South Korea and the United States.

Ri Sol Ju has often accompanied Kim to official events but made her first solo public appearance last weekend at a ballet performance by a visiting Chinese troupe.

The North’s state media reported the outing, referring to her as the “respected First Lady” — the first time the title has been used in more than 40 years, and with the addition of an adjective usually reserved for the country’s leaders.

Dressed in a dusty pink two-piece skirt suit, Ri was accompanied by senior North Korean officials often seen with the leader, including Kim’s younger sister, Yo Jong.

Ri, a former star singer, emerged in 2012 and has been regarded as one of the most high-profile women in the isolated, deeply patriarchal nation, but with a limited role as Kim’s stylish, coy wife.

Analysts say her promotion is likely to be part of an effort to paint North Korea as a “normal state” as it prepares for summits with South Korean President Moon Jae-in next Friday and later with US President Donald Trump.

It also gives her a title matching that of their wives Kim Jung-sook and Melania.

“Promoting Ri Sol Ju is the most effective marketing strategy,” An Chan-il, a defector researcher who runs the World Institute for North Korea Studies, told AFP.

“The summit is being held as equals, so if Melania attends, Ri will attend,” he said, noting that the North Korean leader’s wife accompanied him when he went to Beijing last month on his first overseas trip since inheriting power.

Ri was previously referred to as “comrade” by the North’s state media. Reports say the first time “First Lady” was used to describe a leader’s spouse was in 1974, when it was applied to Kim Song Ae, the second wife of North Korea’s founder Kim Il Sung.

Little is known about Ri, who is believed to be 29 and to have three children with Kim, at least one of them a daughter.

South Korean intelligence reports have described her as coming from an ordinary family with a teacher father and a doctor mother.

A former member of the North’s Unhasu Orchestra, Ri reportedly attended a music school in China and visited South Korea in 2005 as a cheerleader for her country’s squad in an international sporting event.

She is known to be a fashion aficionado and is often pictured wearing luxury outfits — on one occasion carrying what appeared to be a Christian Dior handbag — in a country plagued by chronic poverty.

First Published: Apr 19, 2018 11:51 IST