North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has been married since 2009 and his wife once visited South Korea, a Seoul lawmaker said yesterday, a day after the secretive North first disclosed the match.
Kim has been the subject of intense foreign interest since he took over the impoverished, but nuclear-armed nation after his father, Kim Jong-il, died in December last year.
However, even his exact age is unknown outside the North, although he is thought to be in his late 20s, and his marriage to Ri Sol-ju had been a closely guarded secret.
South Korean Legislator Jung Chung-rai, citing what he said was information given to a closed parliamentary session by the South’s National Intelligence Service (NIS), said Ri was born in 1989 and had studied singing in China.
Jung said Ri had visited Incheon, west of Seoul, in September 2005, as a member of her country’s cheering squad for the Asian Athletics Championships.
An NIS spokesman declined to disclose what was said in the closed meeting.
Ri, a stylish short-haired young woman usually wearing high heels, has been pictured several times this month accompanying Kim Jong-un.
The North’s state media disclosed on Wednesday that she is his wife, without giving further details. However, the mere fact that the couple was pictured in public marked a new departure for the regime.
Kim Jong-un’s youth and inexperience had raised questions about the North’s second dynastic succession. In public, he has presented a relaxed and confident image in an apparent attempt to emphasize his readiness to rule. The disclosure of the marriage was seen as part of the process.
While Kim Jong-il’s wives were never pictured at official functions, “the regime is now facing a different situation, and the move is part of work to make Kim Jong-un appear old and wise enough to rule,” the Seoul-based online newspaper the Daily NK said.
The aim is partly to show “he is not a child,” said Chang Yong-suk, of the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University.
“If he went around alone, people would look down on him as a young lad, but with his wife present, he could show he is the head of the family and also an adult,” he said.
South Korea’s JoongAng Ilbo newspaper, and other media, said Ri is believed to be a former singer who came to the young Kim’s notice during a performance.
JoongAng said Kim’s father had singled her out as a potential first lady while working on his succession plan.
The Kim Il-sung University graduate is from the northeastern province of North Hamkyong and her father is an academic and mother a doctor, the paper said.