North Korea peeled back some of the secrecy surrounding leader Kim Jong Un by revealing that the young leader is married, in contrast to his father, who offered few details about his personal life.
Kim attended the opening ceremony of an amusement park in the capital Pyongyang yesterday with his wife, Ri Sol Ju, the official Korean Central News Agency reported, following a state TV broadcast on the couple's visit. The KCNA report, which was the first official mention of Kim's marital status since he took power after the death of his father Kim Jong Il in December, didn't detail when Kim and Ri were married or provide information on the bride's background.
Little is known about Kim, who studied in Switzerland and is believed to be younger than 30, and whether his time in Europe will translate to an opening up of the isolated and impoverished nation. The announcement of his marriage is the latest in a series of moves aimed at tightening Kim's grip on power and eliminating potential opponents while at the same time burnishing his image, said David Maxwell, associate director of Georgetown University's Center for Security Studies in Washington.
"This is all part of the process of legitimizing Kim Jong Un," said Maxwell, a retired US Army colonel who served in South Korea. "The apparent marriage along with his "˜affectations' of his grandfather Kim Il Sung - manner, speeches and appearance -- is all about making him appear as a charismatic leader like his grandfather was. In effect, North Korea has not had a charismatic leader for 17 years because Kim Jong Il was a near-recluse."
Winnie the Pooh
Ri was the unidentified woman seen in a number of recent public appearances on state television, closely flanking Kim, including the July 6 performance featuring band members dressed as Winnie the Pooh, Tigger, Minnie Mouse and other Walt Disney Co. characters. She was seated next to Kim, sporting a pixie-cut hair style and dressed in a black blazer and a fitted knee-length skirt.
She is also the same woman who was seen in footage on a North Korean website accompanying Kim on a visit to a kindergarten in Pyongyang, South Korean Unification Ministry deputy spokeswoman Park Soo Jin said by telephone. Dressed in a yellow polka-dot dress and white jacket, the footage showed her laughing with Kim and patting children's heads together with the country's leader.
US well wishes
Ri may also be the singer seen in a video on North Korean websites, singing a solo at an event last year, Park said. "It's difficult to conclude, but just by looking at the footage we believe she might be the same person," said Park.
The US wished the newlyweds "well as they embark," said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland. "But obviously, our concerns first and foremost are for the North Korean people, and our hope that conditions for them will improve and that the new DPRK leadership will make the right choice about opening the country."
DPRK refers to North Korea's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
Kim has already delivered two speeches, one of which was aired live on state television, unlike his father whose voice had never been heard during his 17 years of rule, save for a short cheer in 1994, wishing glory for the country's military.
He has also deviated from his father's leadership style by officially recognizing the country's failures, including the botched launch in April of a long-range rocket. He openly criticized officials for mismanagement and inefficiency, in one instance picking out weeds at a run-down amusement park.
"There's more transparency and openness in the way that Kim Jong Un communicates how he's running the country to his people and the outside world," said Koh Yu Hwan, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul. "He's different from his late father, who was reclusive and unapproachable."
While Kim has been appearing with smiling children and Disney characters, he has also been consolidating his hold on the regime. On July 16, state media reported that the country's top military officer, Chief of the General Staff General Ri Yong Ho, had been relieved of his official duties due to ill health. Two days later, KCNA reported that Kim had assumed the top military rank of marshal, with control over the country's 1.2 million-strong army.
"Under the late Kim, any firings or purges went unannounced or with very little detail, but with this young leader things are different," said Koh. "The younger Kim seems to want to instill a sense of stability for the North Korean people by better communicating his decisions."
One area where Kim hasn't deviated from his father is his attitude to South Korea. The regime's rhetoric toward Seoul has remained harsh, with KCNA regularly describing South Korean President Lee Myung Bak as a traitor and threatening to engulf the capital in a "sea of fire."