Profile

Ri Sol Ju: everything we know about Kim Jong Un’s wife

North Korean ‘first lady’ made a rare appearance at an art performance in Pyongyang

A rare appearance was made by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s wife today when she attended an art performance in Pyongyang as part of the country’s Lunar New Year celebrations.

Wearing traditional attire, Ri Sol Ju was seen chatting and smiling with her husband during the show at the Mansudae Art Theatre. She then took to the stage to shake hands and pose for photos with the art performers, said North Korea’s official news agency KCNA. 

Kim Kyong Hui, Kim’s aunt and the first woman in North Korea to join the country’s exclusive politburo, was also seen watching the performance. Kim Kyong Hui disappeared from the public eye for four years in 2013 after her nephew ordered the execution of her husband before making a “surprise comeback” in 2019, said Reuters

In and out of the public eye

Ri has not been seen publicly since 9 September last year when she visited the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun where the embalmed bodies of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il – her husband’s late grandfather and father – are enshrined.

Before that, she was last seen attending a concert commemorating the birthday of late leader Kim Jong Il on 16 February the same year. Rodong Sinmun, the government’s official newspaper, released several photos of Kim and Ri laughing and smiling as they watched the performance.

Ri had been absent from state media for more than 12 months before the concert, stoking “speculation over her health or a potential pregnancy”, reported the BBC last year. South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) said she had avoided appearing in public due to concerns over Covid-19 and had been “playing well” with her children.

‘Something of a fashion icon’

Ri, who is thought to be in her early 30s, has not always been out of the public eye. Unlike the wives of previous North Korean leaders, she used to regularly join her husband at “high-level diplomatic engagements” and helped establish a more “family-friendly image” for the dictator, said the Wall Street Journal (WSJ).

These engagements included a state visit to China in March 2018 and the April 2018 inter-Korean summit. She also helped host the state visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife in 2019, reported Deutsche Welle.

The Pyongyang daughter of a professor and obstetrician often wears Western clothes and high heels, and has been described as “something of a fashion icon to North Korea’s women” by ABC News.

Not much is known about Ri, despite the WSJ describing her as a “trailblazing” first lady. She is believed to have married Kim in 2009 with the marriage arranged by his father after he suffered a stroke the year before.

She wasn’t seen publicly until 2012 when she was spotted at a gala concert “dressed in a trim black suit in the Chanel tradition”, said The New York Times (NYT). Her sudden announcement was perceived to be an indication by Kim that he was breaking away from his father’s more private, dour leadership style. 

Reporting on the public introduction of Ri in 2012, the NYT said that she appeared not to be “the old flame that some media reports say Mr Kim was forced to abandon on his father’s orders”.

Believed to have three children

Reports suggest that before her marriage, Ri was a singer in North Korea’s elite Unhasu Orchestra and a student at Kim Il Sung University, where she pursued a PhD in science.

Kim and Ri are believed to have three children, the eldest being a son.

One of their children is a daughter called Ju-ae, the name revealed by former US basketball star Dennis Rodman after he made a trip to North Korea in 2013. “I held their baby Ju-ae and spoke with Ms Ri as well,” he told The Guardian that year. 

Recommended

Quiz of The Week: 14 - 20 May
Speculation is mounting over the publication date of Sue Gray’s Partygate report
Quizzes and puzzles

Quiz of The Week: 14 - 20 May

Nato’s renaissance: how the world’s most powerful military alliance has taken centre stage
Long table of men at Nato summit
In Depth

Nato’s renaissance: how the world’s most powerful military alliance has taken centre stage

Curtailing abortion rights: will Republicans rue their victory?
Students protest anti-abortion measures
Talking point

Curtailing abortion rights: will Republicans rue their victory?

How the Taliban is rolling back the freedoms of the past 20 years
A burqa-clad woman
In Brief

How the Taliban is rolling back the freedoms of the past 20 years

Popular articles

Is Vladimir Putin seriously ill?
Vladimir Putin
Why we’re talking about . . .

Is Vladimir Putin seriously ill?

Inside Adelaide Cottage: the guesthouse tipped to be Prince William and Kate’s new home
William and Kate
In Depth

Inside Adelaide Cottage: the guesthouse tipped to be Prince William and Kate’s new home

The mysterious Russian oligarch deaths
Vladimir Putin has previously deployed ‘extreme measures’ to crush opposition
Why we’re talking about . . .

The mysterious Russian oligarch deaths

The Week Footer Banner