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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 23 June 2018

North Korea's Kim names wife First Lady ahead of summits with US

Her promotion is likely to be part of an effort to paint North Korea as a 'normal state'

Ri Sol Ju claps while walking with her husband, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, right, in Pyongyang. Korean Central News Agency / Korea News Service via AP
Ri Sol Ju claps while walking with her husband, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, right, in Pyongyang. Korean Central News Agency / Korea News Service via AP

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has given his young, stylish wife the title of First Lady in what analysts say is a major boost to her status ahead of back-to-back summits with South Korea and the United States.

Ri Sol Ju has often accompanied Mr Kim to official events but made her first solo public appearance last weekend at a ballet performance by a visiting Chinese troupe.

The North's state media reported the outing referring to her as the "respected First Lady" - the first time the title has been used in more than 40 years, and with the addition of an adjective usually reserved for the country's leaders.

North Korea's elderly star anchorwoman Ri Chun Hee - who is often drafted in for major announcements - delivered the news of her attendance on television, further enhancing the first lady's standing.

Dressed in a dusty pink two-piece skirt suit, Ms Ri was accompanied by senior North Korean officials often seen with the leader, including Mr Kim's younger sister, Yo Jong.

Ms Ri, a former star singer, emerged in 2012 and has been regarded as one of the most high-profile women in the isolated, deeply patriarchal nation, but with a limited role as Mr Kim's stylish, coy wife.

Analysts say her promotion is likely to be part of an effort to paint North Korea as a "normal state" as it prepares for summits with South Korean President Moon Jae-in next Friday and later with US President Donald Trump.

It also gives her a title matching that of their wives Kim Jung-sook and Melania.

"Promoting Ri Sol Ju is the most effective marketing strategy," An Chan-il, a defector researcher who runs the World Institute for North Korea Studies, told AFP.

"The summit is being held as equals, so if Melania Trump attends, Ri will attend," he said, noting that the North Korean leader's wife accompanied him when he went to Beijing last month on his first overseas trip since inheriting power.

Ms Ri was previously referred to as "comrade" by the North's state media, and the weekend report was the first time the "First Lady" title had been used to describe the leader's spouse since 1974, when it was applied to Kim Song Ae, the second wife of North Korea's founder Kim Il Sung.

Little is known about Ms Ri, who is believed to be 29 and to have three children with Mr Kim, at least one of them a daughter.

South Korean intelligence reports have described her as coming from an ordinary family with a teacher father and a doctor mother.

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A former member of the North's Unhasu Orchestra, Ms Ri reportedly attended a music school in China and visited South Korea in 2005 as a cheerleader for her country's squad in an international sporting event.

She is known to be a fashion aficionado and is often pictured wearing luxury outfits - on one occasion carrying what appeared to be a Christian Dior handbag - in a country plagued by chronic poverty.

Some analysts point to Mr Kim's marginalised mother Ko Yong Hui as another factor driving Ms Ri's expanded role.

Ms Ko, an ethnic Korean from Japan, had three children with Mr Kim's father and predecessor Kim Jong Il, but had a low profile throughout her 28-year marriage.

She died in 2004, reportedly from breast cancer, and her body is said to have been secretly flown from Paris, where she was being treated, to Pyongyang.

A grave was only built for her in 2012, after Mr Kim inherited power.

"I think Kim Jong Un's trauma of watching his own mother living in the shadows also factored in," said Shin Beom-chul, an analyst at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.

"Growing up watching his mother could have motivated him to elevate the status of his wife."

Kim Yo Jong, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's sister, talks with South Koran President Moon Jae-in, right, as they watch a performance of North Korea's Samjiyon Orchestra at National Theater in Seoul, South Korea. Bee Jae-man / Yonhap via AP
Kim Yo Jong, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's sister, talks with South Koran President Moon Jae-in, right, as they watch a performance of North Korea's Samjiyon Orchestra at National Theater in Seoul, South Korea. Bee Jae-man / Yonhap via AP

Unlike his father and grandfather, Mr Kim is often seen accompanied by the women in his life - namely Ms Ri and Ms Yo Jong - in a break from the past when leaders' spouses or sisters rarely made public appearances.

All of this serves as a diplomatic charm offensive in the lead up to back-to-back summits with South Korea and the United States.

However Mr Trump said on Wednesday that although he's looking ahead optimistically to a historic summit meeting with the North Korean leader he could still pull out if he feels it's "not going to be fruitful."

Mr Trump said that CIA Director Mike Pompeo and Mr Kim "got along really well" in their recent secret meeting, and he declared, "We've never been in a position like this" to address worldwide concerns over North Korea's nuclear weapons.

But speaking alongside Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe after the allies met at Mr Trump's Florida resort, he made clear that he'd still be ready to pull the plug on what is being billed as an extraordinary meeting between the leaders of longtime adversaries.

"If I think that if it's a meeting that is not going to be fruitful we're not going to go. If the meeting when I'm there is not fruitful I will respectfully leave the meeting," Mr Trump told a news conference. He also said that a US-led "maximum pressure" campaign of tough economic sanctions on North Korea would continue until the isolated nation "denuclearizes."