The April 15 edition of the Rodong Sinmun was sensational in many ways. First of all, the newspaper coming out on Kim Il Sung’s birthday did not feature his portrait on the first page. In fact, the Great Leader was not even mentioned in the report on the first page, which was dedicated to Kim Jong Un meeting a visiting Chinese delegation. Nor did he appear on the second one.
The third page was, finally, dedicated to the Great Leader – with a meeting in his honor being presided by an empty chair (Kim Jong Un skipped the meeting.)
Normally this alone would have been major news – but the same issue presented us with an even bigger sensation: Ri Sol Ju, Kim Jong Un’s wife, appears to be developing her own personality cult.
In my March piece about the cults of the wives of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, I wrote: “Kim Jong Un’s wife Ri Sol Ju is, for now, not typically praised by state media. But if you see her begin to be called ‘Respected,’ this may be a sign that her power is growing.”
Ri Sol Ju, Kim Jong Un’s wife, appears to be developing her own personality cult
It seems that this exactly what is happening. The second page of Sunday’s Rodong Sinmun carried a report entitled: “Respected Lady Ri Sol Ju accompanied by Party and Government cadres has attended a performance of a Chinese Art group, which is a part of the 31st April Festival of Friendship.”
Like Kim Il Sung’s wife Kim Song Ae and Kim Jong Il’s wife Ko Yong Hui, Ri Sol Ju is now formally “Respected”. Kim Song Ae was “Respected Chairwoman,” Ko Yong Hui was “Respected Mother,” and Ri Sol Ju is “Respected Lady.”
The title is less lofty than Kim Jong Un’s (the Supreme Leader is “beloved and respected”). Her name is also not written in bold and her appearances are not given the editorial prominence that her husband’s are.
But some parts of the message show that her place in the state hierarchy is truly special. For example, this sentence could have easily written about Kim Jong Un:
“When the Lady Ri Sol Ju arrived at the theatre, she was warmly greeted by the head of the International Liaison Department of the Central Committee of Communist Party of China Song Tao, vice-Chairman of Department of Culture and Tourism of China Li Qun, and Ambassador of the People’ Republic of China to Korea Li Jinjun.”
This statement alone already puts Ri Sol Ju above Kim Song Ae and Ko Yong Hui: Kim Song Ae was mainly presented as a person extolling Kim Il Sung’s virtues and Ko Yong Hui was hailed in propaganda as the most loyal person to Kim Jong Il.
Ri Sol Ju met with Chinese officials in Pyongyang over the weekend
2018 has been Ri Sol Ju’s year: in addition to the new title, the North Korean First Lady has, since January, been mentioned in state media English-language reports 44 times: more than any other year since 2013.
In just over a month, she has been seen accompanying her husband during meetings with South Korean officials in Pyongyang, on a historic trip to Beijing, at a K-pop concert, and now in meetings with Chinese officials and at a cultural event.
The most tragicomical about this is that it is very likely that the more the Rodong Sinmun asserts that Ri Sol Ju is “respected” the more precarious her position may be.
2018 has been Ri Sol Ju’s year
Typically the leaders of socialist states hide their wives from the public. In case this historical precedent was not kept, the First Lady usually became quite unpopular. An example would include East German Minister of National Education Margot Honecker, Romanian Deputy Prime Minister Elena Ceaușescu, and member of the Communist Party of China’s Politburo – and wife of Mae Zedong – Jiang Qing.
All three were disliked by the general public, and received nicknames showing how public really felt about them. Ms. Honecker was called the “Purple Witch” (die lila Hexe), as she died her hair purple. Elena Ceaușescu’s nickname was “Codoi” – how she, the Director of Romanian National Institute of Chemistry, had mispronounced the name of carbon dioxide (CO2, “doi” means “two” in Romanian).
Jiang Qing – who became infamous following her husband’s death – was named “White Bone Demoness” (白骨精), referencing an evil spirit from the Ming-era novel “Journey to the West”(西遊記).
In the Soviet Union, the wives of heads of state usually lived private lives – it would be unthinkable to imagine Nina Khrushcheva, Viktoriya Brezhneva, or Anna Chernenko accompanying their husbands. In the later years of the USSR, when protocol demanded the presence of a high-ranking woman, the first female cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova was used.
The first and the last Soviet leader to have a Western-style first lady was, fittingly, Mikhail Gorbachev – his omnipresent wife Raisa immediately became a target for many jokes.
The only examples of first ladies who were prominent in their country and did relatively well under communist rule would be Lenin’s wife Nadezhda Krupskaya – who managed Soviet education – and Khertek Anchimaa – wife of Tuvan dictator Salchak Toka and head of the country’s parliament before its annexation by the USSR in 1944. Both constituted very special cases and are unlikely to be applicable here.
As for North Korea itself, the only woman to receive a proper personality cult was Kim Il Sung’s wife Kim Jong Suk – long after she died. Kim Song Ae’s cult was relatively small, and Ko Yong Hui’s was never public. Other spouses of the Kim family never enjoyed a personality cult.
Of all them, Ri Sol Ju is the most politically successful – and the most consistent in her public appearances.
The more the Rodong Sinmun asserts that Ri Sol Ju is “respected” the more precarious her position may be
NEVERTHELESS, SHE PERSISTED
Kim Jong Un loves his wife. This is very clear from what he permits her to do: she does not wear a mandatory Kim Il Sung-Kim Jong Il badge, implicitly suggesting that she probably is not of a very high opinion of her father-in-law.
She also accompanies Kim Jong Un in public to an extent none of the DPRK’s first ladies ever did. Sometimes she contradicts him, when no one else does. And now she gets her own personality cult. Unfortunately, it is this, maybe the most humane part of Kim Jong Un’s soul, which may backfire against the couple.
History suggests that her rise, especially if she comes to occupy some formal position in the hierarchy, will create rumors that she is manipulating her husband – not what Kim Jong Un wants. Thus the rise of Ri Sol Ju could harm his authority, and may end not well for the first lady herself.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCNA
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