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NORTH KOREA NEWSLETTER NO. 232 (October 18, 2012)
*** TOPIC OF THE WEEK (Part 2)

First Lady Ri Sol-ju Disappears from Public Events Since Early September

SEOUL (Yonhap) -- Ri Sol-ju, who made international sensations with her surprising appearances in the secrecy-shrouded North Korea in July as the wife of top leader Kim Jong-un, was in the media spotlight until August. The attractive young first lady, however, has disappeared from media reports for more than a month, leading to various speculations.

   The name of Ri has not been mentioned by North Korean media since Sept. 8 when North Korean media reported Ri's visit to the Pyongyang Folk Park and Thongil Street in Pyongyang with her husband.

   It had been a matter of keen interest if Ri would attend the concert of the Moranbong Band on Oct. 10 to commemorate the 67th founding anniversary of the Workers' Party of (North) Korea (WPK) in Pyongyang. The North's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported Kim Jong-un attended the performance along with his aunt Kim Kyong-hui and her husband Jang Song-thaek. But there was no first lady.

   "The Moranbong Band gave a performance entitled 'Song in Praise of Guiding Party' in Pyongyang on Oct. 10 on the 67th anniversary of the WPK. The dear respected Marshal Kim Jong-un, the first secretary of the WPK, appeared in the auditorium," the KCNA said.

   Among the audience were Kim Kyong-hui, Jang Song-thaek, Pak To-chun, Kim Ki-nam, Hyon Chol-hae, Kim Won-hong, Kim Pyong-hae, Mun Kyong-dok and Jo Yon-jun, and officials of major industrial establishments, party cell secretaries, teachers and students of universities in Pyongyang and citizens from all walks of life," according to the KCNA.

   On the reason behind Ri's disappearance, a source well versed in North Korean affairs said there is an intelligence that Ri's absence in public occasions was because she did not wear badges of North Korean founding leader Kim Il-sung and the late leader Kim Jong-il.

   The source said senior members of the ruling Workers' Party and the military were indignant at her failure to wear the badges, which is a must in appearing public events saying that "it should not happen and should not be tolerated." The source also said any North Korean adult, regardless of his or her status, should wear the badges in public events and the violation cannot be excused even for the first lady.

   Another speculation around Rl's disappearance is that it is because she became pregnant. The Kim couple are known to have a daughter and Ri became pregnant, according to rumors which has been reported by Japan's Jiji Press.

   The Daily NK, an Internet site based in Seoul which covers stories about North Korea, also reported the rumor of Ri's pregnancy is rampant in North Korea. Daily NK said North Korean women who saw a documentary film in which Ri appeared in September said, "the Marshal's wife seems to be pregnant." Marshal is the military title of Kim Jong-un.

   North Korea watchers in Seoul also speculated her pregnancy saying that Ri's belly seemed to be swollen more or less in her picture taken on Aug. 7 when she attended a military band's performance with Kim Jong-un.

   The speculations about her pregnancy, however, may not be true as Ri continued to wear high heels, which are usually avoided by pregnant women, other watchers said.

   Ri showed herself vigorously in public events accompanying Kim Jong-un. She accompanied her husband even in his visits to military units. Since she first attended an official event in July as the first lady, Ri has accompanied Kim 18 times, showing up at 69 percent of Kim's 26 public appearances.

   Other rumors have it that North Korean leadership may be adjusting the speed of its "Ri Sol-ju marketing" as the beautiful, liberal appearance of Ri has posed some cultural shock to the people in the secrecy-shrouded North Korea, where the residents have been blocked from outside culture.

   Ri appeared in pubic occasions clad in loud dresses with luxury hand bags and the people of the impoverished country may have felt a sense of incongruity.
In North Korea it has long been tradition not to reveal anything about its leaders' private lives, especially that about the country's first lady. It was even more secretive when it came to the country's first ladies, who used to be kept out of sight. But this sort of tradition seems to be changing after the country's young leader Kim Jong-un took power last December.

   Up until early July this year, the junior Kim was presumed to be single as there was no media report officially confirming he was married. But around that time, the junior Kim, presumed to be in his late 20s, was often photographed with an unidentified woman, spawning speculation that she may be his wife.
Ri first appeared at a concert of Moranbong Band together with Kim on July 7. In late July, the socialist country ended speculation about the identity of the mystery woman by confirming she is his wife. Pyongyang's sudden identification of North Korea's new, 23-year-old first lady was something new for the reclusive regime and a further suggestion that the young leader is striving for a leadership style distinct from his late father's.

   On the evening of July 25, the KCNA released a photo of Kim and Ri touring an amusement park in Pyongyang, without identifying Ri. Until that time, Ri had fueled rampant speculation about her identity. She accompanied Kim on visits to an amusement park, kindergarten and concert, looking chic, confident and comfortable.

   A few hours later, however, the KCNA 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."

   Since then, the couple has been frequently put in the spotlight. On July 27, the KCNA said the couple viewed a performance by the band of the Internal Security Forces, the country's police force, held in Ponghwa Art Theater in Pyongyang a day earlier.

   The frequent appearance of the first lady with Kim Jong-un has been interpreted as the young North Korean leader's plan to consolidate his control of the country by showing the nation that he is a mature leader. North Koreans don't regard single men as adults. "Kim is trying to promote a stable leadership by bringing his wife to official events," they said.

   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.