Hermit Kingdom Intrigue

South Korea confirms Kim Jong-un’s wife gives birth
Kim Jong-un and wife Ri Sol-ju / AP

Kim Jong-un and wife Ri Sol-ju / AP


North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-un is a new father after his wife secretly gave birth to a child that intelligence officials believe could emerge as the communist dynasty’s fourth hereditary dictator.

South Korea’s government recently confirmed that Ri Sol-ju, Kim’s wife who was shown in recent months wearing designer fashions and expensive jewelry, had a child in late 2012. The confirmation ended months of speculation about her pregnancy.

The sex of the child is not known, according to U.S. officials and Western diplomatic sources familiar with intelligence reports.

Speculation that Ri was pregnant first surfaced in October after official photos of the North Korean first lady showed what intelligence analysts and North Korea watchers said appeared to be Ri’s baby bump underneath her coat.

Defectors from North Korea and diplomatic sources, meanwhile, provided new details of Ri, who is considered a future power player in the Pyongyang leadership hierarchy and a growing influence on Kim Jong-un.

“Ri Sol-ju is a fresh face who is clearly stepping out but it’s much too early to say if her public activity will have any political relevance in North Korea,” said a U.S. official who sidestepped questions about the birth.

Michael Madden, editor of the online newsletter North Korea Leadership Watch, said he has heard from sources close to the ruling Kim family that the couple had a child.

“If it was a boy, [the North Koreans] would have made an announcement,” Madden said in an interview, commenting on Korea’s traditionally male-dominated society.

Initial signs of the pregnancy last fall included reports that North Korean agents were buying baby clothes and furniture in unusual quantities, possibly for Kim Jong-un and Ri, Madden said.

Few details are known about the inner circle of the ruling North Korean regime, which recently advanced its nuclear weapons program by conducting a third underground nuclear test, and earlier fired off a long-range missile capable of hitting the United States.

Ri’s high-profile role as spouse of the supreme leader is a break from the past. In unprecedented media coverage for the Stalinist regime, she has appeared in public wearing short skirts along with expensive jewelry and accessories in an impoverished country known for outbreaks of cannibalism during frequent famines.

By contrast, little was seen in public of the several wives of Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, who died in December 2011. The wife of North Korean founder Kim Il-sung was seen rarely in public.

Disclosure of new details about the ruling couple comes as the regime in North Korea is stepping up its warlike posture with recent propaganda videos posted on YouTube showing lower Manhattan in flames after a North Korean missile attack. A second video posted Feb. 20 showed President Barack Obama in flames after a nuclear strike.

North Korean propagandists then used a simulation of the White House collapsing as the backdrop for a musical performance by the Korean People’s Army Merited Chorus, with Kim in attendance, shown on state media.

North Korea also is planning large-scale war games later this month that military officials are concerned could be a prelude to a new military provocation by the North.

Three years ago a North Korean submarine sank a South Korean ship, the Cheonan, killing 46 sailors. Months later an artillery barrage was carried out against a South Korean island military base killing four people.

The birth of the latest Kim is considered significant because the communist regime in Pyongyang has evolved from a Soviet-installed Marxist-Leninist regime in the 1950s to an Asian family dynasty where the ruling communist Workers Party shares power with a powerful military clique.

Kim Jong-un took power following the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, in December 2011. Kim Jong-il was the son of Kim Il-sung, the Moscow-backed founder of the impoverished communist state known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Both the party and military are said to be under the control of Kim Jong-un. But intelligence sources say the real power in North Korea today is Kim’s aunt, Kim Kyong-hui, sister of Kim Jong-il and daughter of Kim Il-sung. Kim Kyong-hui and her husband Jang Sung-taek are believed to be the key power brokers in Pyongyang.

North Korea’s military is one of the largest in the world and is developing nuclear weapons and an array of missiles to deliver them, including a new road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile that can reach American cities.

Kim’s wife Ri was reportedly born in 1989 in Pyongyang and emerged from the shadows of North Korea’s wealthy ruling elite during the funeral for Kim Jong-il. She was later photographed in subsequent months at several public outings with Kim Jong-un, including a soccer match, a concert, and during a visit to an amusement park.

According to defectors who knew her during her childhood, Ri was trained as a singer and graduated from Pyongyang’s Kumsung Second Middle School, a center set up to teach music to the children of the North Korean power brokers.

Schoolmates and teachers noticed her upper class background because of several items she wore, including an expensive wristwatch and special lunchbox, goods out of reach for most North Koreans.

“Living in a country whose economy is in dire straits and where a massive number of people starve to death, she wears designer clothes with an expensive handbag costing thousands of dollars,” according to one defector account.

Ri’s privileged status was resented and she was viewed as insensitive to the plight of life in what has been termed the “Hermit Kingdom.”

After finishing school in Pyongyang, Ri was sent to China for vocal training but defectors described her singing as mediocre.

One North Korean who worked in education said Ri was so lacking in talent that her teachers commented that giving her voice lessons were a waste of time. She was said to have a weak voice and was unable to hit high notes of songs during performances.

Sometime before 2010 she met Kim Jong-un, whose power within the North Korean system provided an immediate boost to her musical career. Kim arranged for Ri to find a position within a musical band called the Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble, Kim Jong-un’s favorite group. A major appearance in late 2010 before then-leader Kim Jong-il was a major opportunity for her advancement within the Kim family.

According to the defectors, most North Koreans view the recent high-profile appearances by Kim and Ri with cynicism.

“It’s just unimaginable in our society that a son laughs out loud with his wife’s arms wrapped around his in a public place in less than a year since his father passed away,” one said.

“We are struggling to survive day-to-day, and Kim Jong-un is having fun at the amusement park and he even brings his wife to the military site,” a second defector said.

A source who traveled recently to North Korea said one story circulating in diplomatic circles there revealed that during the amusement park visit, Kim and Ri exchanged words after Ri objected to Kim’s plan to ride a roller coaster that took riders upside down.

According to the account, Ri emphatically told Kim he would not to ride the coaster, and he dutifully complied. The incident fueled reports that the new the maximum leader is henpecked.

Analysts believe the public appearances of the couple are calculated to improve Kim Jong-un’s image within North Korea as he seeks to consolidate power while surrounded by military and party leaders whose loyalty may be suspect.

However, the use of Ri appears to have backfired and may be having the opposite effect, raising questions about Kim’s leadership credentials.

“Outside observers may see Ri Sol-ju as a precursor to potential changes in the reclusive regime,” said one well-placed Asian source. “However, the regime did not seem to take into account the fact that its people may feel resentment, despondency and a sense of deprivation toward a strikingly different lifestyle she enjoys.”

Still, North Korea watchers say Ri has sparked a fad in Pyongyang. More women are wearing short skirts and fashion accessories. Security forces are said to be having some difficulty enforcing the regime’s modest dress code for women who are now saying Ri’s fashions are the norm.

The birth of a potential Kim Jong-un heir also is raising concerns among Korea watchers here and in Asia that Ri could become a powerful force within the regime in ways that could produce instability. They fear Ri could trigger internal disputes should Kim Jong-un take to womanizing as his father and grandfather did.

“We cannot rule out the possibility that if there is a hint of Kim Jong-un being unfaithful, the rapacious Ri may attempt to control the young leader or intervene in certain matters for fear that she might end up like” Kim Jong il’s first mistress, the actress Song Hye-rim, who was sent to a labor camp after the affair became known, the Asian source said.

“And that may result in friction within the regime, dividing the power elites into pro-Ri and anti-Ri camps,” the source added.

Tatiana Gabroussenko, a Korea watcher at the Australian National University, said Ri has disappeared from the public eye in recent weeks.

“The reasons are not known,” she said in an email. “This change could be not only the consequence of her family circumstances, [such as] a child birth, breastfeeding, etc. but also a reaction of North Korean leadership at the risen brows of the world community.”

Ri’s high profile public appearances also do not signal a dramatic shift in North Korea’s political course, Gabroussenko said.

“In all probability, this appears to be an attempt to create a living replica of the ‘mother of nation,’ that is, of Kim Jong-suk — Kim Il-sung’s wife — and in this way, to solidify the public image of her husband who is positioned as ‘Kim Il-sung resurrected,’” she said.

Gabroussenko said most North Koreans are unaware of Ri’s lavish fashion since they have no idea how much such accessories cost.

Madden said for Kim to engage in public displays with his wife was unprecedented and may signal a new approach within the rigid communist system.

“Having her out in the public sphere as first lady is a marked change from Kim Jong-il,” he said. “It portends there might be a new type of leadership in North Korea over the long term.”

Kim Jong-il met with selected U.S. leaders, including former President Jimmy Carter and former Democratic New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.

By contrast, Kim Jong-un last week met with former NBA basketball star Dennis Rodman. Kim is said to be a fan of basketball.

“The trade off is he is a supreme leader that is bound by generals,” Madden said.

David S. Maxwell, associate director of the Center for Security Studies at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service, said the Kim Jong-un regime is new and Ri’s role remains cloudy.

“I just think it is too early to assess how she might fit into a leadership role,” Maxwell said in an email. “The thing that is unusual is that she apparently has a more prominent role than any of the women in Kim Il-sung’s and Kim Jong Il’s public life.”

Maxwell said the opacity of power dynamics in North Korea makes analysis difficult.

“The one thing that will be interesting to see develop (if we can ever see it) would be the relationship between her and his aunt [Kim Kyong-hui] who along with her husband Jang Sung-taek purportedly act as Kim Jong-un’s regent,” he said.

South Korean-based Pyongyang watcher Mike Breen said Ri’s emergence is a departure from past leaders who keep their private lives hidden.

“The important question is whether it signals greater change,” Breen said. “Such is the desire in the outside world for transformation, it is easy to get a giddy over small differences. Right now I see no reason to get excited.”

Examples of Ri’s expensive fashions, according to photographs of her appearances from last year, include designer goods such as a Tiffany necklace worth $4,300; a Movado Swiss watch worth $1,100, and a Christian Dior clutch bag worth $1,600.

Get the news that matters most to you, delivered straight to your inbox daily.

Register today!