Sunday 26 May 2019

Kim giving prominent diplomatic roles to wife and sister ahead of key talks

North Korea is due to hold key summit meetings with the leader of South Korea and, later, Donald Trump.

Ri Sol Ju, right, wife of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and Kim Yo Jong, left, his sister, watch a performance of a Chinese art troupe with Song Tao, centre, head of the ruling Communist Party’s International Department (AP)
Ri Sol Ju, right, wife of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, and Kim Yo Jong, left, his sister, watch a performance of a Chinese art troupe with Song Tao, centre, head of the ruling Communist Party’s International Department (AP)

By Eric Talmadge

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is putting the spotlight on women in his attempts to win over world opinion.

Over the past few months, Mr Kim has increasingly shared the stage with his younger sister, who became an instant celebrity as his envoy to the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, and his wife, a former singer in her late 20s.

While Mr Kim remains the star, the greater public role for his sibling, Kim Yo Jong, and Ri Sol Ju, his wife, comes at an important time for diplomacy for the Communist state.

Ri Sol Ju, centre, wife of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (North Korea/AP)

The new look may be on display again later this month, when Mr Kim is to sit down for his first summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in.

South Korean media suggest Mr Kim is planning to bring his wife to the April 27 meeting on the south side of the Demilitarised Zone that divides the two nations.

Ms Ri accompanied Mr Kim on his surprise trip to China for a summit with President Xi Jinping last month.

After Mr Moon, Mr Mr Kim is scheduled to meet with President Donald Trump in May or June, raising the possibility of Ms Ri meeting her US counterpart, Melania Trump.

North Korea has a somewhat complicated relationship with the first lady concept.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, claps while watching a performance of a Chinese art troupe with his wife Ri Sol Ju (North Korea/AP)

Mr Kim’s grandfather and father both had multiple significant others, and personal matters involving members of the Kim family are treated with the utmost discretion by the North’s propaganda machine.

Even so, Ms Ri would seem to be a natural for the part.

She is poised, comfortable in the limelight and usually dressed in expensive outfits.

She trained in the performing arts from a young age, singing with the Unhasu Orchestra before she and Mr Kim married, reportedly in 2009 or 2010, the year before he assumed power.

A singer herself, it is believed she is close to the members of North Korea’s all-female pop group, the Moranbong Band, another Kim Jong Un creation.

Ms Ri was among a select group of young women dispatched to South Korea to cheer for North Korea’s team at the 2005 Asian Athletics Championships, suggesting she comes from a family in good standing.

She is believed to be 28 years old. Little else is known about her.

Unlike Mr Kim’s father, the identity of his mother was long kept a state secret, Mr Kim has appeared with his wife fairly frequently since their first official outing together, to an amusement park in 2012.

She was with him when former NBA star Dennis Rodman serenaded Mr Kim with a birthday song before an exhibition basketball game in 2014.

A few extended absences were likely due to pregnancies.

She and Mr Kim reportedly have three children, though that, too, has never been officially confirmed.

Her real anointment may have come this week, when she was bestowed with a new honorific, “revered first lady”.

According to South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo newspaper, that has not been used by the North’s state media since 1974, when it referred to national founder Kim Il Sung’s second wife, Kim Song Ae.

Previously, she was simply “comrade Ri”.

Kim Yo Jong, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s sister, talks with South Koran President Moon Jae-in (Bae Jae-man/AP)

Mr Kim’s younger sister, meanwhile, has also entered the stage in a big way.

In February, she became the first member of the North’s Kim dynasty to travel to South Korea, for the opening ceremony of the Olympics.

She quickly proceeded to steal the show, holding court with Mr Moon and other international dignitaries.

In one of the Games’ most telling moments, Mr Moon stood to shake her hand as a joint North-South team entered Olympic Stadium while US Vice President Mike Pence, who was also in the VIP box, sat stone-faced nearby.

At 30, Kim Yo Jong could well be her brother’s closest confidante, a role reminiscent of the relationship between Kim Jong Un’s father, Kim Jong Il, and his aunt, Kim Kyong Hui.

She and Kim Jong Un lived in Switzerland in relative isolation for several years as children.

Press Association

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