by WorldTribune Staff, April 19, 2018
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un has elevated his wife to “first lady,” a title which has not been bestowed upon the nation’s dynastic leaders’ spouses since 1974.
Ri Sol-Ju, believed to be 29, made her first solo appearance as first lady at a ballet performance by a visiting Chinese troupe last weekend, according to an April 18 report by The Korea Times.
North Korean state media reporting on the outing referred to Ri as “respected first lady,” a title which has not been used in over 40 years with the “addition of an adjective usually reserved for the country’s leaders,” the report said.
Ri, who reportedly has three children with Kim Jong-Un, had previously been referred to as “comrade” by the North’s state media. The title of “first lady” had not been used since 1974, when it was applied to Kim Song-Ae, the second wife of North Korea’s founder Kim Il-Sung.
Ri was accompanied to the ballet performance by senior North Korean officials and Kim’s younger sister, Kim Yo-Jong.
“North Korea’s elderly star anchorwoman Ri Chun-Hee – who is often drafted in for major announcements – delivered the news of her attendance on television, further enhancing Ri’s standing,” the Korea Times report said.
Analysts say Ri’s promotion is likely part of an effort to paint North Korea as a “normal state” as it prepares for summits with South Korean President Moon Jae-In and U.S. President Donald Trump.
“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 Trump 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.
Some analysts point to Kim’s marginalized mother Ko Yong-Hui as another factor driving Ri’s expanded role, the Korea Times noted.
Ko, an ethnic Korean from Japan, had three children with Kim’s father and predecessor Kim Jong-Il, but had a low profile throughout her 28-year marriage. She died in 2004, reportedly from breast cancer, and her body is said to have been secretly flown from Paris, where she was being treated, to Pyongyang.
A grave was only built for Ko in 2012, after Kim Jong-Un inherited power.
“I think Kim Jong-Un’s trauma of watching his own mother living in the shadows also factored in,” said Shin Beom-Chul, an analyst at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies. “Growing up watching his mother could have motivated him to elevate the status of his wife.”