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Presumed N. Korean first lady may hint at change

Publication Date : 19-07-2012


Amid slight signs of change, North Korea’s recent disclosure of its presumed de facto first lady is reinforcing the prospect of reform under the budding leadership of Kim Jong-un.

Little was officially announced about her status or background, other than video footage and pictures from the communist regime’s mouthpieces. The young, elegant-looking woman, reportedly surnamed Hong, accompanied Kim during official activities such as a visit to a kindergarten and concert.

Analysts see her ongoing media exposure as a shift in the reclusive state’s long-standing policy of not speaking about the spouse of its mighty leader. The custom was kept in place during the 17-year rule of Kim Jong-il, the fledgling leader’s deceased father.

That adds to growing speculation that the young, Swiss-educated Kim may moderately open up his country to improve the impoverished economy and preempt any harbingers of destabilisation.

“North Korea’s going public with her face can be interpreted as Kim Jong-un’s willingness to break away from the abnormal custom maintained by his father that the leader’s wife is not subject to public revelation,” said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior researcher with the Sejong Institute.

“It may also reflect a Western influence on Kim given his experience of studying in Switzerland for four years and a half, where couple’s gatherings are routine.”

In one video clip, the woman painted the image of a self-assured and even fashionable first lady, wearing a yellow polka dot dress and a Chanel-style white tweed jacket on top of ivory open-toe high heels.

The distance between the couple was also far closer than to other top officials such as his powerful uncle Jang Song-thaek.

She and Kim were visiting a kindergarten in Pyongyang in the footage released on Sunday by North Korea’s state television, KCTV.

While Seoul officials and some observers caution against hasty assumptions, other experts said it is the latest sign of change.

“If she proves to be his wife, not a younger sister, we can even forecast that Kim’s politics will assume a considerably open and reform-minded nature in the future,” said Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea professor at Dongguk University in Seoul.

They said that the disclosure of his presumed wife reflects Kim’s growing confidence in line with his newly minted marshal title and near-complete power succession.

Following his father’s death in December, he became the supreme commander, the first secretary of the ruling Workers’ Party and the first chairman of the National Defence Commission, taking control of all power organs of the totalitarian country.

KCTV on Wednesday announced that Kim has earned the title of marshal, the highest military rank after grand marshal, held only by his two predecessors ― Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.

“Kim may have come to the conclusion that it is time to unveil his wife, as his official succession was completed in April and a documentary film about his mother has also been released,” Cheong said.

“[The video clips] appear to have underscored that he is married in apparent efforts to overcome one of his biggest weaknesses ― being young ― and project an image of a stable leader.”

Broadcaster YTN on Tuesday cited an unnamed source as saying that the woman is a 27-year-old from Cheongjin, North Hamgyeong Province. She married Kim in 2009 while pursuing her doctoral degrees at Kim Il-sung University and gave birth to a daughter in 2010.

The woman rose to the surface on July 7 when KCTV aired a programme showing the 20-something-year-old leader at a musical performance by the Moranbong Troupe with her sitting next to him.

On July 8, she appeared again in a scene in which Kim and his aides paid tribute to his grandfather and national founder Kim Il-sung at the Geumsusan Memorial Palace, marking the 18th anniversary of his death.

Seoul officials first considered her to be his younger sister Kim Yo-jong. But a new consensus is being built that she is more than a sibling in light of the level of treatment and security around her.

“The woman next to Kim at the concert looks different from the one who showed up during Kim Jong-il’s funeral process in December,” a North Korea specialist told reporters last week on condition of anonymity. He assumed that Kim Yo-jong attended the funeral.

“She may be the young leader’s wife because the fact that she took a seat to his right has significance in terms of protocol. But we need a more extensive confirmation given that for women, six months is long enough to make major changes in their appearances.”

If and when she is officially pronounced first lady, the North is likely to shortly begin notching up a cult around her, analysts said, citing previous patterns.

In June, Ko Young-hui, a Japanese-born Korean and late mother of Kim, was introduced in a documentary film as part of the regime’s drive to idolize the young commander and cement his fledgling leadership.

The 90-minute movie, titled The Mother of Great Military First Chosun, contains a sketch of her life in the 1980s or ‘90s. It shows her watching a young Kim draw a picture, receiving shooting training and cleaning Kim Jong-il’s field jumper.

The narrator refers to Ko as the late Kim’s “most precious revolutionary comrade sent from heaven” and includes her in a pedigree of “Great Mothers” along with the mothers of Kim Jong-il and Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-suk and Kang Pan-sok.

Ko is believed to be the third of Kim Jong-il’s four wives and gave birth to two sons and a daughter ― Jong-chul, Jong-un and Yo-jong. Although the two were never officially married, she reportedly had been treated as the first lady while alive.

However, state media had rarely mentioned Ko before due to her Japanese origin and ambiguous marital status in a society that puts high priority on personal background in classifying people. KCTV showed her for the first time in January in another documentary, though it did not mention her name.

In stark contrast, it had paid eulogy to Kim Jong-suk, Kim Jong-il’s late mother and the first wife of Kim Il-sung. She met her husband through a guerilla squad that fought against Japanese colonial rulers in the 1930s.


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