She appears with her husband, smiling by a snowy stream on the forested slopes of Mount Paektu, North Korea’s highest mountain and a sacred peak said to be linked to the origins of the three generations of the Kim dynasty.
Another photo from the just-released photo book, “The People Sing of Mt. Paektu,” shows Kim Jong Un and his wife Ri Sol Ju warming their hands by a fire next to smiling soldiers in winter gear.
The 100-page propaganda book – which is being used in teaching sessions across the country – honors the so-called “Paektu bloodline”, which goes back to national founder Kim Il Sung, but in a more personal, family-friendly way than the more bombastic cult of personality that Kim Jong Il, the current leader’s father, built around himself.
But what many North Koreans find jarring about the book is its attempt at polish Ri’s image, “praises her as a noble figure of the Paektu line and a protector of socialism,” a source in South Pyongan province told Radio Free Asia on condition of anonymity for security reasons.
Most citizens know Ri’s relatively humble origins as a singer for the Milky Way Orchestra, once one of North Korea’s most prominent musical acts.
A video of the orchestra performing the song Soldier’s Footsteps in 2011 shows Ri in traditional dress, setting militaristic lyrics such as “I lived my life in military uniform as time flowed. Life has many roads, but I walked the path of revolution.”
However, because she is a well-known singer, people who have seen the photo book are wondering why the authorities are now trying to link her to the Paektu line’s revolutionary past.
“They scoff and ask how the authorities can spread the word that she is of the Paektu bloodline when most people know she was a singer in a performance group,” the source said. who said the book has been used during morning training sessions for workers at several companies that have offices at the Unsan Pharmaceutical Plant where he works.
Pump up her image
Although Ri Sol Ju married Kim Jong Un in 2009, she was not introduced to the public as his wife until three years later, shortly after her husband became the country’s ruler.
Kim and Ri are believed to be parents to three children, including a girl named Ju Ae, who recently made several appearances with her father.
North Korea has pumped up Ri’s status in recent years. In 2018, state media began calling her “Respected First Lady”, a title that had not been used for 40 years. She has also made several public appearances with her husband over the past few years, including state visits abroad, something previous leaders’ wives and consorts never did.
Being a former singer detracts from the idealized image of a first lady and can tarnish Kim Jong Un’s image, Ken Gause, director of the Strategy, Policy, Plans and Programs Division Special Projects at the Virginia-based Center for Naval Analyses, told RFA.
“Especially in a culture like North Korea, where there’s a certain toughness and a certain purity, where they try to portray the leader as being above the kinds, normal kinds of careers that some people would have, especially dancers and things like that,” Gause said.
No pictures of revolutionary heroine
Curiously, the book favors Ri over Kim Il Sung’s first wife, Kim Jong Suk, who is treated as a national heroine for fighting alongside her husband against Japanese colonizers. a source in the northwestern province of North Pyongan told RFA on condition of anonymity to speak freely.
“There are no pictures of Kim Jong Suk,” said the second source, “and she participated in the anti-Japanese revolution.”
So revered is Kim Jong Suk that the authorities renamed a county, a naval academy and several other places after her.
When people compare Ri to Kim Jong Suk, they can’t help but see her as unworthy, the sources said.
Gause said it is a mistake to expect Kim Jong Un to create a similar cult along the lines of his father.
“I have a problem with people talking about Kim Jong Un’s cult of personality … It’s nowhere near what his father’s cult of personality was,” Gause said.
Some Kim Jong Il myths include the story of his birth on Mount Paektu, which includes talking animals, multiple rainbows, and a new star appearing in the sky. Or his claimed score of 18 in his first golf outing.
“The cult of personality has never been involved [the same] lines [as his father’s], which is godlike. He’s more human,” Gause said.
And part of projecting that more human image is that Ri accompanies her husband to public events, something that former leaders’ wives or mistresses rarely did.
Ri joined Kim at 36 diplomatic events in 2018, according to North Korean website NK Pro, including a visit to China and three inter-Korean summits that year.
Translated by Claire Shinyoung Oh Lee and Leejin J. Chung with additional reporting by Eugene Whong. Edited by Eugene Whong, Joshua Lipes and Malcolm Foster.