The face that launched a thousand North Korean tirades

SEOUL (Reuters) - The one certainty in unpredictable North Korea is that if the state detonates a nuclear device or leader Kim Jong-il visits a duck farm, Ri Chun-hee will be on TV boasting about the amazing accomplishment.

Ri Chun-hee, the main newscaster for North Korea's state TV, during a broadcast from Pyongyang, in an undated image taken by North Korean media and published in April, 2008. REUTERS/Chosun Magazine/Handout

Ri is the forceful grandmother speaking with the authority of the state as the main newscaster for North Korea’s only TV channel. Her face is one of the few broadcast abroad and her stentorian reports thunder across airwaves from the land where leader Kim rarely speaks.

Ri, born in 1943, is an actress turned newscaster who first took to the air in 1971 when the North’s state TV channel was taking off.

Slightly plump, with permed black hair, she has become an institution whose bombastic delivery decries the miseries inflicted upon the state by a hostile world while celebrating its military triumphs.

“With her rusty voice that is powerful and appealing, what could the 65-year-old Ri have gone through to become the people’s broadcaster and hardworking hero?,” the North’s Chosun Monthly magazine asked in an article last year.

Since the North’s state media is in the habit of answering the questions it poses, the magazine tells of Ri’s rise to fame, that of course was guided by state founder Kim Il-sung, who nurtured her “with warm love and faith.”

Kim pushed her to be a broadcaster with fiery speech, the magazine said in one of the few North Korean news stories giving details of her life.

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“As these days passed, her voice grew to have an appeal so that whenever she would speak on the news, viewers were touched.”

“When Ri announced reports and statements, enemies would tremble in fear,” it added.


Experts in the North’s ideology said she is akin to a high priestess of the state’s propaganda apparatus who cannot be avoided in the hermit country where TV sets turn on and off but cannot change channel.

Over the years, she has denounced South Korea, Japan and the United States with frequency as she delivered news of the North’s two nuclear tests. She brimmed with pride while recounting the activities of Great Leader Kim Il-sung and Dear Leader Kim Jong-il, his son, as they toured military bases, cabbage patches and steel mills.

Usually dressed in traditional Korean clothes, Ri is supposed to fill the role of the most trusted name in news in the North Korean state with expertise in propaganda and developing cults of personality for its leaders.

“She has a very aggressive voice, one that North Koreans would say ‘fills up the screen’,” said Kim Yong, who defected from the North and became a TV personality in South Korea.

“Listening to South Korean newscasters when I first arrived sounded like hearing mom and dad talk in their room. The newscasters sometimes stumbled on words, while the ones in North Korea are never allowed to, or they’ll get fired,” Kim said.

Ri lives in relative luxury in Pyongyang with her husband, children and grandchildren, the North’s magazine story said.

“Ri Chun-hee with her microphone in hand, blessed by the leader, is still with her viewers today looking not a day older than before she was married,” it said.

Editing by Ron Popeski