North Korea’s state-run news media peeled back some of the secrecy surrounding leader Kim Jong Un, saying for the first time that the young dictator is married.
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 didn’t detail when Kim and Ri were married or provide information on the bride’s background.
The KCNA report was the first official mention of Kim’s marital status since he took over as leader after the sudden death of his father Kim Jong Il in December. 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.
“Kim Jong Un appearing in public with his wife is probably a reflection of the family-centered Western culture he experienced during his years in Switzerland,” said Cheong Seong Chang, senior research fellow at the Sejong Institute in Seoul, in e-mailed comments. “Such an appearance may boost Kim’s image for the North Korean youth that wants change, especially to young women.”
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, according to South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency. She was seated next to Kim, sporting a pixie-cut hair style and dressed in a black blazer and a fitted knee-length skirt.
Kim took the nation’s top military rank on July 18 as marshal of the country’s 1.2 million armed forces, a step in solidifying his grip on power. North Korea unsuccessfully fired a long-range rocket in April, raising concerns abroad that Kim may order a test detonation of a nuclear device to assert himself.
The announcement of Kim’s marriage is the latest in a series of moves by the young North Korean leader that appear intended to strengthen his grip on power and eliminate potential opponents while at the same time softening his image.
While Kim has been appearing with smiling children and even Disney characters, on July 16 state media reported that the country’s top military officer, Chief of the General Staff General Ri Tong Ho had been relieved all of his official duties. Two days later, KCNA reported that Kim had assumed the country’s top military rank of marshal.
“This is all part of the process of legitimizing Kim Jong Un,” said David Maxwell, a retired U.S. Army colonel who served in South Korea and now is associate director of Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies in Washington. “I think all the events of late, from the purge of General Ri Yong Ho to the marriage announcement, is all about elimination of opposition and consolidation of power among the elite while establishing Kim Jong Un’s reputation as the leader of the Party, the Army, and the people.”
“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.”
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