With the briefest of remarks, North Korea ended weeks of speculation: The mystery woman accompanying young leader Kim Jong-un to recent public events is his wife, “comrade Ri Sol-ju.”
The confirmation that Kim, who inherited the country from his father, Kim Jong-il, seven months ago, is married came today in an otherwise routine TV report about the new leader's tour of an amusement park. Ri has been seen at Kim's side in recent weeks at a concert, a kindergarten visit and other events, but state media did not mention her before now, fueling widespread speculation about her identity.
North Korean media showed Kim and Ri smiling broadly at each other, Kim leaning slightly toward her, as they inspected the newly opened Rungna People's Pleasure Ground, at one point watching a dolphin show.
The news anchor spoke briefly, almost off-handedly, in identifying Ri, but gave no details, including how long she and Kim have been married.
Analysts said the announcement was a calculated move by Kim and his advisers as they forge the image of the 20-something leader who took power following the December death of Kim Jong-il.
"Kim Jong-un is breaking with his father's secrecy-shrouded leadership," said Lim Eul-chul, a North Korea expert at South Korea's Kyungnam University. "The revelation of his wife is a sign that Kim wants to show a more open leadership."
The couple's public appearances and today's brief marriage announcement are a striking contrast to Kim Jong-il's style. His 17-year rule was known for its secrecy, and his companions and children were rarely discussed. That includes Kim Jong-un, who was virtually unknown outside North Korea before his formal introduction to the world in late 2010.
The new leader's methods are considered more similar to his grandfather, North Korea founder Kim Il-sung, who was often shown alongside his wife, Kim Jong-suk, and with children in his arms.
Ahn Chan-il, a political scientist at the World Institute for North Korea Studies in South Korea, said the marriage revelation suggests Kim is inching toward "more Western-style" leadership, and helps ordinary North Koreans to feel that their new ruler is an average guy, not an eccentric.
There have been other changes during Kim Jong-un's rule, including his promotion of younger officials and, most recently, his surprise dismissal of former military chief Ri Yong Ho, once seen as a key mentor during Kim's rise to power.
Daniel Pinkston, a Seoul-based analyst with the International Crisis Group, played down the possibility that recent signs of Western influence in North Korea mean real reform is coming soon.
Still, he said that Kim Jong-un's decision to publicize the woman's presence shows a leadership quality distinct from his guarded father and also eases worries among his people and the much older officials serving under him "about the youth question."
South Koreans have closely followed the bits and pieces North Korea has released about Kim Jong-un and his companion, including their attendance at a concert where Mickey Mouse and other Disney characters performed, at a memorial for Kim Il-sung and at inspections of various North Korean sites.
During his tour of the amusement park, Kim visited a mini golf course and a wading pool and checked out courts for basketball, volleyball and beach volleyball, said the official Korean Central News Agency.
The speculation about Kim Jong-un's private life has coincided with high tension on the Korean Peninsula following a North Korean long-range rocket launch in April and repeated threats by Pyongyang to attack the South.
A push by the United States and its allies for North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program is stalled. North Korea, meanwhile, struggles to feed its people. A recent UN report said two-thirds of its 24 million people face chronic food shortages, and access to clean water, regular electricity and medicine is still remote for most of those living in the underdeveloped countryside. A U.S.-based rights group also estimates tens of thousands of prisoners remain held in Soviet-style penal camps.
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