A petite woman dressed in elegant but modest pastel dresses, to which she sometimes matches handbags from Dior or Chanel. A former cheerleader and singer, she is comfortable in the limelight, but does not often make public appearances. She is sometimes compared to Kate Middleton – young and pretty, she has refreshed the image of the ruling family and shows that despite the glamour surrounding her, she has not lost her ties with the people. What is actually known about Ri Sŏl Ju, Kim Jong Un’s wife?

What is actually known about Ri Sŏl Ju, Kim Jong Un’s secret wife?

North Korean society is among the most “closed” in the world. The country’s authorities are seeking total control over both incoming and outgoing messages. There is no free press, even government officials serving abroad have strict restrictions on communicating with foreigners.

For this reason, most of what we know about First Lady Ri Sŏl Ju is information from South Korean intelligence sources that has not been officially confirmed. She was probably born in 1989 in the village of Su’nam. Although Ri Sŏl Ju’s family is not very wealthy (her father is a university lecturer and her mother is a gynecologist or midwife), Kim Jong Un’s wife has high-ranking relatives in important government positions.

She graduated from the University of St. Thomas. Kim Ir Sen in Pyongyang. She studied singing in China and, according to media reports, visited South Korea in 2005 as a member of the cheerleading squad at the Asian Athletics Games. In the past, she was a singer in North Korea’s Unhasu choir – as The Sun found, Kim Jong Un was said to have ordered the destruction of all documents related to his wife’s stage career, obsessively defending privacy.

Ri Sol Ju at the 2005 Asian Athletics Championshipsgentlewoman -
Ri Sŏl Ju during the 2005 Asian Athletics Games by Lee Jul So, CC BY-SA 4.0.

North Korea’s first lady – dictator’s wife

Ri Sŏl Ju was officially introduced as Kim Jong-Un ‘s wife in 2012 – nothing like the previous wives and partners of North Korea’s leaders – dictator father Kim Jong Il and grandfather, founder of the state, Kim Ir Sen. The couple is believed to have married earlier, back in 2009, but no details are known as to how they met.

Ri Sŏl Ju accompanied her husband to some important international events. The meeting with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and his wife Kim Jung-sook at the 2018 Inter-Korean Summit, for example, was widely reported in the media. Ri Sŏl Ju later told the media that she quickly caught a common language with South Korea’s first lady because they both have a background in music. Ri Sŏl Ju was also very involved during the Seoul presidential couple’s visit to Pyongyang – giving Kim Jung-sook a tour of the city and showing her the children’s hospital.

Much controversy in the media was stirred up by another, what might seem like a very trivial situation – when a high-level U.S. intelligence official said to Kim Jong-Un that the latter should cut down on smoking because it harms his health, everyone present – including the dictator’s sister and his closest advisor – froze. In a totalitarian country, criticism of the supreme leader is considered treason, an act almost unthinkable. However, it did not escape the attentive observers that Ri Sŏl Ju remained relaxed, with a smile on her lips she said that she herself had warned her husband about the pernicious effects of smoking.

Ri Sŏl Ju with her husband Kim Jong Un at the 2018 Inter-Korean Summit.
Ri Sŏl Ju with her husband Kim Jong Un during the Inter-Korean Summit 2018 Cheongwadae / Blue House, KOGL Type 1.

What role does Ri Sŏl Ju play in North Korea?

When analyzing the role that Ri Sŏl Ju plays in the North Korean regime, one must take into account the overall situation of women in the country. Although government officials have repeatedly declared have declared , that systemic gender equality has been achieved, women and girls continue to suffer from numerous human rights violations, including pervasive discrimination, physical and sexual violence, and harsh enforcement of stereotypical roles.

Traditional patriarchal Confucian values remain deeply rooted in North Korea. Confucianism is an ethical and philosophical system that is strictly hierarchical and places great emphasis on maintaining social harmony rather than individual freedoms. In such a society, a woman’s position is lower than a man’s, and her reputation depends largely on maintaining “sexual purity” before marriage and obeying the men in the family.

For decades, women’s representation in key government positions was marginal. This has changed somewhat in recent years, with Kim Yo Jong – Kim Jong Un’s sister and Kim Jong Il’s youngest daughter, Kim Kyong-hui – Kim Jong Un’s aunt and wife of the doomed Chang Song Thaek (who was to be thrown to the dogs to eat), or Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui – being prominent in the media. However, none of them raised the topic of women’s rights, and there have been no policy changes in this area.

Against this backdrop, it is hardly surprising that the first lady does not play a very active role in North Korean politics. Accustomed to public appearances, she gives the impression of feeling confident in front of the cameras. Her appearances alongside Kim Jong Un, however, only serve to reinforce and warm the image of a caring “mother of the nation.”

Children of Kim Jong Un and Ri Sŏl Ju – who will inherit power in North Korea?

As reported by South Korean intelligence sources, Kim Jong Un and Ri Sŏl Ju have three children – however, the couple never shows up with them in the media, so not much is known about them. The eldest son was due to be born in 2010, a daughter in 2013, and the third child, whose gender is unknown, in 2017. This issue is important primarily because of the succession of power. Succession plans, if they exist at all, are known only to immediate family members and their advisors. The previous two changes took place from father to son, with the chosen descendant being prepared in advance to assume the role of head of state after being appointed by the incumbent. There is nothing known about Kim Jong Un, although he is a compulsive smoker and very overweight, having already appointed a successor.

Read also: Elizabeth II – wife, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother


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