When Kim Jong Un visited the newly renovated Pyongyang Cosmetics Factory in North Korea last week, smiling broadly as he admired the lotions and potions and their fancy packaging, he was accompanied by two women. They were on the sidelines, but they were there.
One, in a stylish black suit with a floral pattern, a clutch purse under her arm, was Kim’s wife of seven years, Ri Sol Ju. She stood beside her husband as he checked on the production process, according to photos published Sunday.
The other in the background, dressed in the functional black outfit of a Communist Party apparatchik and carrying a notebook, was his younger sister, Kim Yo Jong.
Each has a job to do in Kim Jong Un’s North Korea — one to be glamorous and aspirational, the other to represent the importance of hard work — and each offers clues about the running of the opaque regime.
“His wife enables Kim Jong Un to present a softer side of himself. They are a modern, young, virile couple on the go,” said Jung H. Pak, a former Korea analyst at the CIA who is now at the Brookings Institution. “This new generation of North Koreans growing up in a nuclear North Korea now associates being assertive with being glamorous. I think it inspires hope.”
Kim’s sister, who is about 30, is one of his closest aides. This month, he elevated her to the powerful political bureau of the ruling Workers’ Party, moving her closer to the center of the leadership.
“She’s supporting him. You know she’s not a leader in her own right,” Pak said.
Women’s status in North Korea varies widely. Under communism, women are more integrated into the workforce than in neighboring South Korea, even serving in the military. And it’s the women who are earning most of the money in North Korea these days.
While their husbands show up for duty at dilapidated state factories or farms to earn pitiful wages, married women go to the burgeoning markets to sell everything from homemade rice cakes to imported rice cookers, often making many times what their husbands earn.
But in other ways, the hierarchical Confucian ideals that have endured for centuries on the Korean Peninsula are still very much in place, with women viewed as second-class citizens whose primary purpose is to raise the next generation of soldiers.
The concept of motherhood is strong in North Korea, with the state often referred to in propaganda as the all-encompassing, caring “motherland.” Kim Jong Il, the second leader of North Korea and father of the current ruler, had a signature song called “No Motherland Without You.”
Almost all of the women who are elevated to senior positions in North Korea get there through family relations — such as Choe Son Hui, the regime’s top interlocutor with the United States. She’s the daughter of a former prime minister and is thought to have a direct line to Kim.
The most famous woman in North Korea is Kim Jong Suk, the wife of founding president Kim Il Sung and mother of Kim Jong Il. She is revered as an anti-imperialist fighter.
Kim Jong Il never appeared in public with any of his five consorts, but since his son became the leader of North Korea in 2011, the regime has started to idolize Ko Yong Hui, Kim Jong Il’s second wife and Kim Jong Un’s mother.
Kim Jong Il’s sister, Kim Kyong Hui, was also prominent in the Workers’ Party, serving in a raft of influential positions and previously occupying the politburo seat that her niece, Kim Yo Jong, now holds. She and her husband groomed Kim Yo Jong for the role she would play, said Michael Madden, who writes the North Korea Leadership Watch website.
But she hasn’t been seen in public since Kim Jong Un had her husband — his uncle — executed in 2013 for apparently building up too much of his own power.
Kim Yo Jong first appeared in public at her father’s funeral, at the end of 2011, and is now clearly in charge of promoting her brother’s image, he said.
She runs the Workers’ Party propaganda and agitation department — a position that led the U.S. Treasury Department to sanction her by name this year — and has been seen organizing papers and logistics at several marquee events, including a military parade.
“Kim Yo Jong is always in the background, kind of lurking in behind her brother somewhere. She’s not important in her own right, but she’s part of this dynastic rule,” Brookings’ Pak said.
In North Korea, blood is definitely thicker than water. The Kim family has retained power for more than seven decades by relying on the loyalty of an inner circle and claiming a kind of heaven-ordained blood right.
Kim’s wife comes from this inner circle of loyal cadres.
Ri, who is thought to be a few years younger than her 33-year-old husband, is from an elite family that has helped keep the Kims in power. Ri Pyong Chol, a former top air force general who is always at Kim’s side during missile launches, is either her grandfather or great-uncle, said Madden.
She is reported to have been a singer with the Unhasu Orchestra, part of the regime’s propaganda efforts, and to have traveled to South Korea in 2005 as a member of a cheering team at an athletic competition.
Kim and Ri Sol Ju are thought to have been set up by Kim’s aunt and now-executed uncle, and to have married in 2009 or 2010 with Kim Jong Il’s blessing. They are thought to have two or three children, although only one birth has been confirmed — by basketball player Dennis Rodman.
The former Chicago Bull held the baby, a girl called Ju Ae, during a visit to North Korea in 2013. “I held their baby Ju Ae and spoke with Ms. Ri, as well. He’s a good dad and has a beautiful family,” Rodman told reporters after the visit.
When Ri is seen in public, playing the role of devoted wife, she is often wearing chic Chanel-type suits and was once spotted with a Christian Dior purse — or at least a knockoff.
In today’s North Korea, the Kim family is supposed to represent a new kind of socialist ideal: that theirs is a modern country that has style and nuclear weapons.
But this ideal could pose problems for the regime.
“It raises expectations,” said Pak. “If you’re an ordinary North Korean and you’re constantly toiling but your expectations are not met, you can’t live this consumerist dream.”
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