Joan Smith: Trophy wives and trophy bags

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The Independent Online

As far as I know, no one has ever made a movie called "I married a dictator", but perhaps they should. It's only a month since Ri Sol-ju was confirmed as North Korea's first lady but she's already accompanying Kim Jong-Un at public events, including a "field guidance trip" to an army unit. It's not my idea of a date but Ri, pictured, put on her own little show, sporting a Dior clutch bag which carries a price tag – according to people who know about these things – of about £1,000.

According to other people, who take more interest in politics than handbags, it's all part of Kim's attempt to humanise a regime with one of the worst reps in the world. If that's the case, he might want to consider ditching the Mao suit and spending a bit of time in the gym; plump just isn't a good look in a country so badly run that millions are at risk of starvation. North Korea is often described as one of the last Stalinist states, and TV footage of the happy couple applauding robotic soldiers hasn't done anything to dispel that impression.

In the West, we're used to assuming leaders' wives know exactly what message they're sending, but North Korea is another matter. It's easy to see dictators' wives as Lady Macbeth figures but I suspect they're more often accomplices than instigators. Asma al-Assad seems as greedy and unprincipled as her husband, but his family ruled Syria like Mafia dons long before she came on the scene. And in Ri's case, we don't even know whether she had any choice in the matter. A South Korean news agency has suggested she was hand-picked as Kim's bride by his father, the late dictator, and "received etiquette training for about six months before taking on the role of first lady".