Kim Jong Un's wife shined before marriage as a singer

September 07, 2012

By KIYOHITO KOKITA/ Asahi Shimbun Weekly AERA

When the Unhasu Orchestra held performances in Pyongyang to celebrate the new year in January and February 2011, an unknown female singer appeared both times on stage in what likely would be her last public performances.

In July, the North Korean media suddenly announced that the singer, Ri Sol Ju, was the wife of the country's young leader, Kim Jong Un.

Now, North Korean watchers have been studying and analyzing video of those two performances, and the timing of them.

"The performances may have been made possible after she told Jong Un that she wanted one chance in the spotlight," said Lee Chor U, who heads the Korea Arts Center in Japan and is knowledgeable about the music scene in North Korea.

"Her singing shows hints of talent. With the performance as her finale, she likely then entered into an education process to become the wife of the leader of North Korea."

The Unhasu Orchestra was created in 2009 with the strong backing of Jong Un, who was just establishing himself as the successor to his father, Kim Jong Il, to lead North Korea.

The orchestra is one of the more famous in North Korea and has a wide repertoire from classic to popular music. So, it seems unlikely that an unknown singer with no connections could come from out of nowhere to suddenly appear on stage with it.

"While I have seen various performances by famous musical groups, I had no recollection of ever seeing that singer before," Lee said of Ri.

Ri next caught the public's eye when she appeared fashionably dressed sitting next to Jong Un on July 6 to take in the debut performance of the Moranbong band that had been recently formed. On July 25, North Korean media identified her as "comrade Ri Sol Ju, wife" of Jong Un.

In the February 2011 performance, Ri appeared in a bright red traditional Korean "chima jeogori" dress. She took part in six songs out of an entire program of about 20 numbers and had two solo performances.

One pop tune had the energetic melody that would be perfect for an idol singer in Japan, but the lyrics were totally North Korean. The song was about a young girl who falls in love with a miner when she visits as an intern. The lyrics tell of how she struggles to decide whether to divulge her love to her mother. In North Korea, it is common for parents to encourage their daughters to marry men who are likely to be promoted as an official in the Workers' Party of Korea.

Like those in other nations, young women in North Korea also are loathe to marry someone from outside major metropolitan areas. The song, however, appears to be encouraging young women in urban areas to move to the countryside and settle down with a miner.

The song first became popular about 10 years ago. The title of the song leads to all kinds of speculation because it can be translated as "I cannot say yet."

Because Ri sang the song, one message that can be read from the song is that at the time she sang it she could not yet tell the world that she was the wife of Jong Un.

In the video, when she raises her first finger and ends the song with "I cannot say," the camera zooms in on Ri's face. That attention seems to indicate that she is the star of the show, even though she was then a relative unknown.

The other solo performance was a song about a "cool guy." With a lively melody, she sang about a man whom she can believe in, whom she loves and who makes her realize what love really is.

In the audience for the performance were both Kim Jong Il and Jong Un.

After Jong Un was anointed the inheritor of the Kim dynasty in 2009, he was appointed to important party posts from the autumn of 2010. North Korean media increasingly ran stories about Jong Un accompanying his father on various visits around North Korea.

Ri also appeared in the finale of the February performance, a military song.

In the January performance, Ri is seen joining the chorus to sing while dressed in a blue chima jeogori. It was a hearty rendition of the military song known as "Footsteps of Soldiers." She raised her fist in some of the more stirring parts of the song, which was originally made popular a few years ago by the famous singer Hyon Song Wol, who at one time was rumored to be romantically involved with Jong Un.

There is no confirmation that Ri performed at all after the February 2011 performance.

With Kim Jong Il suddenly dying last December, Jong Un became the leader of North Korea before his 30th birthday. Ri became the "first lady" of North Korea at age 22.

There is much uncertainty about her background. One report places her birthplace at Chongjin in northeastern North Korea, to a father who was a university professor and a mother who was a doctor.

In a private briefing conducted by officials of South Korea's intelligence agency to the National Assembly, Ri was described as being from an ordinary family and as having been chosen to join a youth arts troupe when she was 4 or 5 where she began a life of singing.

She was part of a Pyongyang youth arts group that participated in an arts festival held in Fukuoka in August 2002. She was 12 at the time.

According to Lee Young-hwa, a professor of economics at Kansai University, the document submitted when she entered Japan showed she attended an elite arts school in Pyongyang.

She also took part in exchange programs with South Korea between 2003 and 2005. She was also sent as part of a cheerleading group for North Korea at an Asian track-and-field competition held in South Korea. The fact that she was sent abroad to serve as a publicity tool of North Korea indicates that she was thoroughly indoctrinated to remain loyal to Pyongyang.

There are reports that she subsequently became a singer under the auspices of the government agency in charge of public security. If that report is true, that would have meant she was part of an organization that was overseen by Jang Song Thaek, Jong Un's uncle. Jong Un may have come to know Ri through that connection with his uncle.

The two were married in 2009. Although there are some reports the couple has a child, Kenji Fujimoto, the Japanese who once served as a sushi chef to Kim Jong Il, denied that rumor.

Lee Young-hwa said, "I believe the fact that Jong Un is seen with her so often in the North Korean media is a reflection of the fact that his own mother, Ko Yong Hui, was not allowed to appear often in public while she was still alive. He probably has a strong desire not to make his own wife someone who is always in the shadows."

There is also speculation that Ri's relatives will be promoted to important posts in the near future.

By KIYOHITO KOKITA/ Asahi Shimbun Weekly AERA
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In a file photo distributed by the Korea News Agency, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Ri Sol Ju applaud a performance by the Moranbong band in Pyongyang. (AP)

In a file photo distributed by the Korea News Agency, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Ri Sol Ju applaud a performance by the Moranbong band in Pyongyang. (AP)

  • In a file photo distributed by the Korea News Agency, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and Ri Sol Ju applaud a performance by the Moranbong band in Pyongyang. (AP)

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