Last month, North Korea released an official photo of Ri Sol Ju’s visit to the burial place of Kim Jong Il, in commemoration of the late leader’s 71st birthday. But rather than focus on the commemoration of Kim Jong Il’s passing or Kim Jong Un’s attendance, an article from Seoul-based news agency Yonhap, focuses almost entirely on the body of the North Korean First Lady—specifically, a figure much slimmer than seen in images from earlier this year—leading to speculation about her pregnancy and childbirth.
Kim Jong Un and Ri Sol Ju pay respects to the late Kim Jong Il on his birthday.
Baby Bump Watch from Across the DMZ
In the article, a South Korean government official speculates that though the government is in the process of verifying the existence of a little’Un, according to the visual evidence provided by these few photos, it is possible that Ri Sol Ju has already given birth. Specifically, the Yonhap article notes that:
Though the video showing Ri Sol Ju attending a Moranbong Band performance for the January 1 New Years’ celebrations gave rise to remarks on her pregnancy, at the same time authorities gave the opinion that “Expectant mothers often wear ‘pot-shaped’ [항아리형] Western-style clothing so it is difficult to conclude that she gave birth.”
It goes on to analyze her hairstyle as indication of the possible birth:
As proof of the birth, the government source cited Ri Sol Ju’s figure, which has become considerably slimmer, and her permed hair. It is common knowledge that usually, if a pregnant woman does not get a perm, [she refrains from doing so] because of the strong chemicals involved in the process.
Left: Ri Sol Ju watching a Moranbang Band performance in commemoration of the 60th Anniversary of the founding of Kim Il-sung Military University. Right: Ri Sol Ju at the Moranbang Bang’s New Year’s Celebration Performance at midnight on Jan. 1, 2013. Source: Yonhap News.
Family Man = Able Leader?
Finally, the article grants that the importance of the event is more than just producing a(nother?) heir to the Kim throne, but the role in again solidifying the young leader’s place in the Kim Dynasty:
An official from the Ministry of Unification, in reference to Ri Sol Ju’s childbirth, said that, “this is an issue about which North Korean authorities must talk…until last year it appears she was pregnant, and the figure in this screen seems most likely not to be pregnant. The viewpoint of the childbirth may be safely stated. Through Kim Jong Un, this is the third generation of idolization [in the DPRK], and this sort of idolization process will also attempt to cast Kim Jong Un’s own birthday as well as wife and children into the idolization.” The official mentioned the potential of artificially controlling the moment of the birth of Ri Sol Ju’s child through idolization.
This is the first time the South Korean government has released their opinion on the subject of the issue of this childbirth. Last July, the South Korean National Intelligence Service (NIS) estimated that Kim Jong Un and Ri Sol Ju already had had one child together, according to the article.
First Ladies Everywhere
Even the most globally public and vocal first ladies seem vulnerable to evaluation of their appearance. One of the most discussed moments of President Obama’s 2013 Inaugural Speech was completely unrelated to anything he said—it was his wife Michelle’s recently changed coif, another addition to her controversial examples of what it is to have modern African-American hair. In the case of the U.S. “mom-in-chief,” adding fringe was jokingly explained as a result of mid-life crisis, which incidentally is laden with cultural meanings. In Ri Sol Ju’s case, permed hair was used as evidence of a postpartum restyling. Hair must be meaningful for these public women; it is more than just a fashion choice and symbolizes a life change for a woman in the political sphere.
In February 2013, the Duchess of Cambridge was cited as an example in author Hilary Mantel’s criticism of modern royal families and the public attention they draw. Some Internet commentary (flimsily) interpreted Mantel’s comments as a vitriolic attack on the “plastic princess,” even going so far as to insinuate that jealousy of Princess Kate’s slim physique and pretty appearance fueled the remarks. Other media reports argue it was not an attack on the princess specifically, but as a critique of the “cult of royalty” and “feminist critique of monarchism,” a reading which can help us pull apart South Korean treatment of the Ri Sol Ju issue, even though the political system is different.
As Catherine Scott notes in an article on Martel’s critique of British royalty:
Mantel’s speech is not the excoriation of an innocent woman, but an attack on how some parts of the media canonise royal women (one might add not just royal women), while also rendering them voiceless and purposeless.
Not one spoken word has been heard by Ri Sol Ju publicly. We have watched her perform, as part of a cheerleading envoy to the 2005 Asian Games and as a singer in the Unhasu Orchestra. And now, the media focuses on her having a baby in the same breath as an American celebrity offspring of drastically different notoriety.
Completing the Kim Family Tree
In a political leadership based on hereditary succession, the level of idolization of the Kim family is hugely influential. This was started with a film about Ko Young-hee, released last year. Regarding the canonization of Kim Jong Un’s mother, Korea University Professor Yoo Ho Yeol explains:
North Korea has established the third generation succession system, and has now started full-fledged idolization efforts. To achieve this, they must complete his family tree.
Just as the moment of his own birth was commemorated, so too does the possible moment of the birth of his daughter or son mean a great deal for growing the next branches of Kim Jong Un’s family tree. Such importance is not lost on external followers of the DPRK “royal family,” as the statement by the South Korean government official above make clear.
(More analysis on the role of family in cementing Kim Jong Un’s authority can be found at SinoNK.com: Modern, Feminine and Bright: Kim Jong Un’s First Lady and Ko Young-hee: Joseon’s Nameless, Newly Canonized Mother.)