The rose of Pyongyang? I don’t think so

In North Korea, we don’t know if the first lady had any choice in the matter

The Independent, Thursday 09 August 2012

As far as I know, no one has ever made a movie called “I married a dictator”, but perhaps they should. It’s only a month since Ri Sol-ju was confirmed as North Korea’s first lady but she’s already accompanying Kim Jong-Un at public events, including a “field guidance trip” to an army unit. It’s not my idea of a date but Ri put on her own little show, sporting a Dior clutch bag which carries a price tag – according to people who know about these things – of around a thousand pounds.

According to other people, who take more interest in politics than handbags, it’s all part of Kim’s attempt to humanise a regime with one of the worst reps in the world. If that’s the case, he might want to consider ditching the Mao suit and spending a bit of time in the gym; plump just isn’t a good look in a country so badly run that millions are at risk of starvation. Indeed, a 65 per cent leap in food prices in Pyongyang between June and July this year suggests that the marriage announcement may have been a calculated distraction.

North Korea is often described as one of the last Stalinist states, and TV footage of the happy couple applauding robotic soldiers in uniform hasn’t done anything to dispel that impression. Ri looks more nervous than delighted in film clips released by the regime, including one of what looks like an excruciating visit last month to a new amusement park. This was the occasion when a newsreader referred to Ri for the first time as Kim’s wife, but beyond that very little is known about her.

She is believed to be a singer who caught his eye during one of her performances, but even that detail isn’t certain. In the West, we’re used to assuming that leaders’ wives know exactly what message they’re sending, but North Korea is another matter. I know a diplomat who was once taken, with great ceremony, to visit a state-of-the-art goat farm outside Pyongyang. There was only one problem, which caused huge offence when he couldn’t resist pointing it out: no goats.

It’s easy to see dictators’ wives as Lady Macbeth figures but I suspect they’re more often accomplices than instigators. Asma al-Assad seems as greedy and unprincipled as her husband, but his family ruled Syria like mafia dons long before she came on the scene. And in Ri’s case, we don’t even know whether she had any choice in the matter. A South Korean news agency has suggested she was hand-picked as Kim’s bride by his father, the late dictator, and “received etiquette training for about six months before
taking on the role of first lady”.

Trophy bag, trophy wife? Either way, I don’t think we should expect to see Vogue
profiling the “rose of Pyongyang” any time soon.



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