North Korea leader projects new image by showing off wife

By Sam Kim

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, July 26 2012 5:32 a.m. MDT

In this undated photo released by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) and distributed in Tokyo by the Korea News Service Thursday, July 26, 2012, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center, accompanied by his wife Ri Sol Ju, right, waves to the crowd as they inspect the Rungna People's Pleasure Ground in Pyongyang.

Korean Central News Agency via Korea News Service, Associated Press

SEOUL, South Korea — The nation's young leader tours a new amusement park with his beautiful bride on his arm, smiling and waving to adoring crowds. An everyday image of domestic bliss in high places?

In North Korea, it was a carefully choreographed appearance aimed at showing Kim Jong Un as a friendly, modern leader, no different from the heads of other countries. It also provided a sharp contrast to the intensely private face his father Kim Jong Il had portrayed during his 17 years in power.

Kim Jong Un's marital status was confirmed almost as an afterthought by state TV in an understated report on Wednesday about the opening of the amusement park: "As a welcoming song resonated, dear respected Marshal Kim Jong Un, supreme commander of our party and people, appeared at the inauguration ceremony together with his wife, comrade Ri Sol Ju."

With that sparse description, the typically close-lipped North Korean government revealed to the world that the mystery woman seen beside Kim at public events over the last several weeks was indeed his wife, as had been speculated. No details were given, but South Korean media reports said she is a former singer and cheer squad member and that they married in 2009.

Analysts say the disclosure of his marital status was aimed at sending the message that the 20-something Kim was mature and stable, someone people can relate to despite having only seven months of experience as leader following the death of his father in December.

Marriage would ease worries among Kim's people and the much older officials serving under him "about the youth question," said Daniel Pinkston, a Seoul-based analyst with the International Crisis Group.

It also helps ordinary North Koreans feel that their new ruler is an average guy, not an eccentric, said Ahn Chan-il, another political analyst.

Ri was shown smiling while speaking with her husband, her arm tucked closely under Kim's as they led an entourage of senior military and party officials through the park. In another photo released by the official Korean Central News Agency, she held Kim's arm while he raised the other to wave his hat at a crowd of people in swimsuits.

Such public displays of affection aren't unusual among ordinary North Koreans, but they are a big change for the ruling family and a "shocking" development in a country like North Korea, where first ladies are normally hidden from publicity, said Lee Woo-young, a professor at Seoul's University of North Korean Studies.

"The North seems to be focusing on portraying Kim as a friendly, young and down-to-earth leader," Lee said.

Kim has been seen with Ri during a kindergarten visit and other events recently, including a concert where Mickey Mouse and other Disney characters performed, but state media had not mentioned her before now.

On Wednesday, Kim and Ri, wearing a stylish red and black polka dot jacket and black skirt, were shown smiling broadly as they inspected the newly opened Rungna People's Pleasure Ground. They were greeted with loud cheers when they visited a dolphin show, a wading pool and a mini golf course, KCNA reported.

The couple "saw dolphins playing stunts to the tune of joyful music," and also shook hands with foreign diplomats and officials and their wives, the dispatch said.

South Korean media speculated that Ri was a singer before her marriage. Joongang Ilbo, citing an unnamed intelligence official, reported Thursday that Ri resembles a woman who sang with the North's Unhasu Orchestra. Yonhap News Agency quoted an unnamed source as saying that Ri performed in an orchestra for a state security organ before marrying Kim Jong Un.

Also Thursday, the National Intelligence Service told lawmakers that Ri visited South Korea in 2005 as a member of North Korea's cheering squad to an Asian athletic competition, according to the office of a lawmaker, Jung Chung-rae.

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