Kim Jong-un tries to soften authoritarian image by sharing stage with wife, sister

Tokyo: North Korean leader Kim Jong-un appears to be trying out a new tactic to boost the image of his authoritarian regime: he's putting the spotlight on the women in his life. Over the past few months, 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.

For sure, there is only one star of the show in North Korea, and that is Kim himself.

But the greater public role for Kim Yo-jong, his sister, and Ri Sol Ju, his wife, comes as Kim is embarking on a "charm offensive", a series of summits and diplomatic moves that have significantly raised his international profile.

Kim Jong-un tries to soften authoritarian image by sharing stage with wife, sister

File image of North Korea's Kim Jong-un with his wife. AP

The timing suggests he's hoping to change the optics of his regime, if not its iron-fisted domestic policies, by presenting a softer face to the outside world.

The new look may be on display again later this month, when Kim is to sit down for his first summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in.  South Korean media suggest Kim is planning to bring his wife to the 27 April meeting on the south side of the Demilitarized Zone that divides the two nations.

If he does, it would be in keeping with the North's new normal.

Ri accompanied Kim on his surprise trip to China for a summit with President Xi Jinping last month and was seen looking quite stylish as she beamed beside him at state functions.  After Moon, Kim is scheduled to meet with President Donald Trump in May or June, raising the possibility of a click-bait bonanza: Ri meeting her US counterpart, Melania Trump. But the time for that much exposure might not be quite ripe.

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

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, 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 Kim married, reportedly in 2009 or 2010, the year before Kim assumed power. A singer herself, it's believed she is close to the members of North Korea's all-female pop group, the Moranbong Band, another Kim Jong Un creation.

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

Unlike Kim's father—the identity of his mother was long kept a state secret—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 Kim with a birthday song before an exhibition basketball game in 2014. A few extended absences were likely due to pregnancies. She and 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 hasn't 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's younger sister, meanwhile, has also entered the stage in a big way.

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Updated Date: Apr 18, 2018 18:57:38 IST

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