SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea’s new young leader, Kim Jong-un, is married, state media said on Wednesday, putting an end to speculation over the relationship with a woman seen at his side during recent events.
The announcement, which fits a trend the Kim has followed to break out of the dour management style of his late father, Kim Jong-il, came just two weeks after he was seen at a gala performance accompanied by the woman, with rumors swirling as to whether she was his wife, lover or sister.
“Kim Jong-un’s move appears to give the youth hoping for change, especially young women, a favorable impression of him, although it can make conservative old North Koreans uncomfortable,” said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior fellow at the Sejong Institute think-tank.
“Although Kim Jong-un continues a one-man dictatorship, he is expected to have a more open attitude in culture than in the Kim Jong-il era.”
North Korean state broadcaster named Kim’s wife as Ri Sol-ju, but did not say when the two were married.
South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency said she had been a member of a troupe of performance artists and had received etiquette training for about six months before taking on the role of first lady, quoting a source familiar with the state’s inner workings.
Recent TV footage showed the two laughing with each other, touching a child’s hair together and clapping while watching a performance featuring western show tunes and Mickey Mouse.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters officials there were aware of the reports, but said the focus should be on Kim’s long-suffering people.
“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 leadership will make the right choice about opening the country and providing more for their people,” she said, using the acronym for North Korea’s formal name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Kim, who is in his late-20s, took over the family dynasty last December with the death of his father, whose rule took North Korea deeper into isolation, abject poverty and large-scale political repression.
Since then he has taken a more glitzy approach, at least on the surface, to ruling a country which is locked in a stand-off with the West over its nuclear weapons program.
Since the end of the official mourning period, the youngest Kim to rule North Korea has been seen laughing with fusty old generals, gesticulating in delight at a military parade and, the biggest shock of all, speaking. Most North Koreans never heard his father speak.
A U.S. official said the state media report stating that Kim was married was unusual by north Korean standards and added: “the unveiling of the attractive wife could be part of an effort to enhance Kim’s image.
“Regime propaganda seems to be focused on building a charismatic and modern image for the young leader,” said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Kim has worked steadily to impose his own stamp on the top leadership of North Korea, and on Sunday ousted Vice Marshal Ri Yong-ho, the country’s leading military figure, who was seen as close to Kim Jong-il.
Kim was named marshal of the army in a move that adds to his glittering array of titles and cements his power. He already heads the Workers’ Party of Korea and is First Chairman of the National Defence Commission.
He is also gearing up to experiment with agricultural and economic reforms after purging Ri Yong-ho for opposing change, a source with ties to both Pyongyang and Beijing told Reuters.
Bizarrely for a state which frequently voices its loathing for all things American, the show at which Kim was seen with his wife featured a range of Hollywood themes.
The gala performance featured Walt Disney’s “It’s A Small World”, a thumping rock version of the theme tune to “Rocky” and Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”, a song that might have particular appeal to the Kim family, whose word is law in North Korea.
The family does have a previous Disney connection - the ruler’s elder brother, Kim Jong-nam, said he was on his way to Tokyo Disneyland when he was caught illegally entering Japan in 2001.
Additional reporting by Tabassum Zakaria and Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Editing by Nick Macfie and David Brunnstrom