The fashionable and poised Peng Liyuan, wife of China’s President Xi Jinping, emerged earlier this year as arguably the nation’s first Western-style first lady and quickly won over the public as well as the media. Now, the wife of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Ri Sol Ju, is gaining international attention, but not for the best reason.
Ri Sol Ju was dubbed by the Global Post “the Kate Middleton of North Korea” and the second-most-recognizable millennial-generation North Korean, after her husband. The fame she has achieved most recently, particularly in Western media outlets, followed a story that alleged Ri had starred in a home-made porno film. The salacious headlines and anonymously sourced details of the story swirled across social media and soon the public was clamoring for additional information about Ri.
Earlier this month, South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo shed some light on a dramatic love triangle that involved Ri, Kim and another woman who was part of the entertainment group Unhasu Orchestra, which Ri had been involved in.
While North Korea intentionally shrouds details about the nation’s highest leaders and dignitaries, it's hard to confirm much about Ri and her background, but it's generally believed she was born around 1984, in the North Korean city of Chongjin, which is located near the Chinese border, and is the daughter of distinguished, well-off North Koreans. Some watchers believe that Ri’s status as the daughter of North Korean "aristocrats" is enough to debunk any porn-film rumors. “You don’t spend your life learning the violin, win a competition in Russia, and play with a French orchestra in Paris all with the backing of the state and then start making pornographic films,” Adam Cathcart, North Korea expert at the University of Leeds, told the Global Post. Ri’s musical talents, global experience and noted family made her a perfect candidate for Kim Jong Un's wife. The two were reportedly set up by Kim Jong Un’s aunt, and wed in either 2009 or 2010.
After Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un’s father and predecessor, died suddenly of a heart attack in December 2011, Ri made her first state appearance, at the funeral. Ever since then, small details about Ri’s personal tastes, like a proclivity for designer handbags, have made her a profile in modern North Korean beauty.
“She is just so charming,” Kenji Fujimoto, Kim Jong Il’s former sushi chef, told CNN. After working for the Kim family in the 1980s and 1990s, Fujimoto returned to Pyongyang in 2012, where he met Ri. “She said to me, ‘Welcome to the republic. Our comrade the Supreme Commander missed you the most. He was always talking about you. Thank you for coming.”
Another person who has gained access to Ri is Dennis Rodman, former NBA star and current North Korea basketball-diplomacy advocate, who now touts Kim Jong Un as a personal friend. After returning from his second trip to North Korea in September 2013, Rodman said he met Kim’s wife and child. “I held their baby Ju-ae and spoke with Ms. Ri as well,” he told the Guardian.