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NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 221 (August 2, 2012)
*** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 1)

North Korea Confirms Mystery Woman Is Kim Jong-un's Wife, Ri Sol-ju

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- In secret-shrouded North Korea, it has been a long tradition not to reveal details on the country's first lady. But last week, the socialist country ended speculation about the identity of a mystery woman who has been seen at leader Kim Jong-un's side by confirming she is his wife.

   In the latest breakaway, Pyongyang's state media on July 25 confirmed that the mystery woman who had been photographed with Kim since July 7 as his wife named Ri Sol-ju.

   It was highly unusual for the secretive regime to disclose its leader's private life. But the North Korean leader in his late 20s continues to shake off the regime's long-held tradition of secrecy, intriguing watchers eager to find signs of change in the reclusive state.

   On the evening of July 25, the North's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) released a photo of Kim and Ri touring an amusement park in Pyongyang, without identifying Ri.

   A few hours later, it released different pictures from the same event with the caption, "Our respected Marshal Kim Jong-un and his wife, Comrade Ri Sol-ju, looked around the Rungna People's Pleasure Ground in Pyongyang, with other diligent workers of the party, the state, and the military and wives of state and international officials," the KCNA reported.

   Ri has fueled rampant speculation in recent weeks about her identity. She accompanied Kim on visits to an amusement park, kindergarten and concert, looking chic, confident and comfortable.

   On July 27, the KCNA said the couple viewed a music performance by the music band of the country's police force Internal Security Forces held in Ponghwa Art Theatre in Pyongyang a day earlier.

   The singing and dance performance was held to celebrate victory in the Korean War, the North Korean holiday that marks the July 27 truce in 1953 that ended the 1950-53 conflict.

   "The performers sang of the undying feats of Kim Il-sung, who wrought miracles of history by defeating the most atrocious U.S. imperialists in the war," the KCNA reported.

   Kim expressed great satisfaction over the performance, which extolled the country's "Songun," or military-first, revolution, it said.

   Seoul's intelligence agency said the 23-year-old Ri, who is believed to have been educated in music and sang in a national orchestra, married Kim in 2009 and may have a child with the leader.

   The wife of the North Korean leader visited South Korea in 2005 as part of a cheering squad for an athletic event, a South Korean lawmaker said July 26, citing information provided by the South's spy agency.

   South Korea's National Intelligence Service (NIS) confirmed local media reports claiming Ri had visited the South Korean city of Incheon in 2005, Rep. Jung Chung-rai of the main opposition Democratic United Party told reporters after a parliamentary interpellation session attended by Won Sei-hoon, the director of the NIS.

   It is rare for South and North Koreans to visit each other's countries, as they must receive special permission from their respective governments. The two Koreas remain in a technical state of war following the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty.

   At a meeting of the National Assembly's Intelligence Committee, NIS officials briefed representatives on what they know about the North's new first lady.

   NIS officials told lawmakers they believe Ri was born in 1989 and married the North Korean leader in 2009, according to Jung. The leader, whose age has been disputed due to the secretive nature of the reclusive regime, was confirmed to have been born in January 1984, the NIS officials said in the closed-door session.

   Jung said that Ri graduated from the Kumsong Middle School No. 2 in Pyongyang, and studied vocal music in China, and had been a singer of the Unhasu Orchestra until 2011.

   "So far, we understand that she is just a daughter of an ordinary family, not of a high-ranking military official," Jung added. "We haven't yet confirmed the rumor that Jang Song-thaek introduced them."

   Jang is Kim Jong-un's uncle and is considered his main protector in power circles. "Kumsong Middle School No. 2 is where talented children are selected at ages of 4 or 5 to become members of state-run art troupes," Jung said.

   The spy agency interpreted the North's disclosure of the first lady as an attempt to give Kim a "stable image," according to Jung.

   News reports have often cited sources familiar with the communist regime as saying Kim lacks the support of his people due to his young age and lack of experience.

   The young leader inherited the military-backed regime following the death of his father and longtime leader Kim Jong-il last December.

   Meanwhile, Rep. Yoon Sang-hyun of the ruling Saenuri Party quoted NIS officials as saying many people are confusing the birth year of Kim Jong-un.

   It is rumored that North Korea has said Kim Jong-un was born on Jan. 8, 1982. But analysts think that year was chosen to echo the birth year of his grandfather Kim Il-sung, who was born in 1912, and that he was actually born on Jan. 8, 1983.

   It is also the spy agency's assessment that the North's three-generation hereditary power succession has been completed with Kim's promotions to the top posts of the country's ruling Workers' Party, government and military.

   The NIS noted it took three years for former leader Kim Jong-il to complete his inheritance of power from his own father, the North's founding leader Kim Il-sung.

   Meanwhile, a local newspaper said North Korea's first lady may have won the love of leader Kim Jong-un through her renditions of local hits such as "Don't Ask My Name" and "I Can't Say It Now."

   A report on Korean Central Television also described the couple's tour of the amusement park, saying, "As the welcoming song echoed, Marshal Kim Jong-un appeared at the completion ceremony with his wife, Comrade Ri Sol-ju."

   None of the reports gave any further details about the first lady. State media showed Ri played the first lady role, talking with wives of foreign ambassadors.

   Pyongyang's sudden identification of the first lady was something new for the reclusive regime and a further suggestion that young leader Kim Jong-un is striving for a leadership style distinct from his late father's in order to cement his power.

   In the reclusive country, previous first ladies have been largely kept out of sight. When the late South Korean leader Kim Dae-jung brought his wife Lee Hee-ho to the inter-Korean summit in June 2000, then-leader Kim Jong-il showed up alone.

   Among Kim Jong-il's four wives, the first three made few public appearances. His first wife, Song Hye-rim, who died in 2002, was rarely seen because her father-in-law Kim Il-sung opposed the marriage.

   Ko Yong-hui, the third wife and the late leader's favorite, was never seen in public or in state media's reports before she died in 2004. Ko was the mother of Kim Jong-un.

   Kim Jong-suk, his official wife approved of by his father, never made an appearance.

   Kim Il-sung's second wife, Kim Song-ae, frequently appeared at official events and was a former communist activist. But she disappeared in the 1980s, reportedly because Kim Jong-il denounced her as a stepmother.

   The two late North Korean leaders started showing their wives a few months before they died, a South Korean government official said. "In June 1994, founder Kim was accompanied by Kim Song-ae when former U.S. President Jimmy Carter visited the North," the official said.

   "Late leader Kim Jong-il also brought his fourth lady, Kim Ok, to informal occasions in China and Russia."

   Analysts say most of Pyongyang's first ladies came from the arts, including a pianist, dancer and actress. South Korea's intelligence service said that Ri was a singer in the Unhasu Orchestra, a team composed of young, promising musicians.

   "In North Korea, artists, including singers, are part of the elite," Kim Yeon-soo, a professor at the Korea National Defense University said. "Many mothers are eager to send their children to state-run art schools for their futures."

   Speculation is high that Kim Jong-un wants to consolidate his control by showing maturity, and North Koreans don't regard single men as adults.

   "Kim is trying to promote a stable leadership by bringing his wife to official events," Rep. Yoon Sang-hyun said.

   "The NIS says that he is also trying to mimic his grandfather, founder Kim Il-sung, clasping his hands behind his back and wearing double-breasted winter coats."

   Meanwhile, the U.S. government extended good wishes on July 25 to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un upon reports that he is married, but put more emphasis on the well-being of the communist nation's people, straddled with hunger and human rights violations.

   "Well, we've obviously seen the reports. We would always wish any kind of newlyweds, you know, well as they embark," State Department's spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said at a press briefing.

   She was responding to a question about whether U.S. officials were invited to the wedding of the North's new leader.

   Nuland added, "But obviously our concerns first and foremost are for the North Korean people and our hope that conditions for them will improve and that the new DPRK (North Korea) leadership will make the right choice about opening the country and providing more for their people."