The most mysterious leader on the planet just got a little more so. After a fortnight’s unexplained absence from the public gaze, North Korea’s supreme leader Kim Jong-un has returned squiring a glamorous young woman.
Hair trimmed in a neat bob, large eyes, a warm, self-confident smile, got up in a natty dark suit with green piping, she took the stage next to Mr Kim at the end of a musical show, applauding the cast. The careful presentation of the pair – and nothing presentational is left to chance in North Korea – suggested strongly that they were husband and wife; that here was North Korea’s First Lady. But though happy to splash the photos around, official sources gave no clue as to her identity.
South Korean intelligence sources claim that she is Hyon Song-wol, a locally famous pop singer who, fronting the Bochonbo Electronic Music Band, had a string of local hits in the early 2000s. The most popular was entitled "Excellent Horse-like Lady", and eulogised the Stakhanovite achievements of a beautiful woman worker in a textile factory. In the video of the song, Ms Hyon played the heroine, dashing around a sparkling factory with a beatific smile, distributing bobbins and collecting swatches of cloth at top speed.
It is claimed that Kim Jong-un and Hyon Song-wol were lovers in adolescence but that Kim's father, Kim Jong-il, who died at the end of last year, disapproved of the relationship and forced his son to break if off. Ms Hyon reportedly married an army officer and had a child with him. But now that the elder Kim is dead, it is suggested that the younger man has gone back to his old flame and is positioning her to play an active role at his side, helping him to consolidate his image as a virile young man with the same sort of urges as his subjects. "The two have known each other since they were in their teens," the intelligence source told the Seoul daily Joong An, "and rumours about the two having an affair have been circulating among Pyongyang's top elite".
The mystery woman, who earlier had accompanied Mr Kim on a visit to the tomb of his grandfather Kim Il-sung, founder of the dynasty, undoubtedly bears a strong resemblance to the pop singer. But official North Korean sources have so far declined to shed light on her identity, leading to a rash of rival explanations.
Earlier reports claimed that she was Kim's younger sister Kim Yeo-jong, and was being put through her public paces in preparation for being given a significant political role. But according to Paik Haksoon of the Sejong Institute, a Seoul think-tank, this is rot: "She doesn't have the attitude of a younger sister, who in Korean culture would have to stay in the shadow of her elder brother," he said.
The expert supports the thesis that the woman is Kim's wife, "otherwise the regime would not give her such public proximity to the supreme leader". But he doubted whether she was Hyon Song-wol: he questioned whether Kim would be permitted to flaunt his secret romantic attachments while still consolidating his grip on the nation.
And if this really is Hyon Song-wol, whatever happened to her husband and son?