Rumors are continuing to swirl over the whereabouts of the wife of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who has not been seen in public in more than seven months. Little has been revealed about the identity of Ri Sol Ju since she first stepped out in public with Kim in 2012, only later to be confirmed as the dictator’s wife. Given that even the pair’s wedding date remains a mystery, it is no surprise that her latest disappearance has thrown up some wildly different and in some cases troubling theories about what exactly has happened to North Korea’s first lady.
Ri being pregnant is perhaps the most likely, and certainly the most palatable, scenario. Were she to be carrying a child, it would be far from a surprise for the North Korean leadership to keep the information hidden. It was only after revelations in the South Korean media, and an unlikely confirmation from former NBA star Dennis Rodman, that it was confirmed that Ri had given birth to her first child in 2013. But that was a daughter and Kim is believed to be desperate to father a male heir to continue a dynasty that has ruled the country since Korea was officially split into two states in 1948.
Nothing to See Here
Alternatively, there could be a drama-free explanation for Ri’s absence from her husband’s side. Ri’s appearances had been on the slide since 2013, when she was seen in public 22 times. Her sighting at an event celebrating a recent satellite launch from Pyongyang in February was her first in four months. In the context of the North Korean regime, Ri appearing alongside Kim in public at all is something of an abnormality. Neither Kim’s father Kim Jong Il nor his grandfather Kim Il Sung were ever accompanied by their wives at public events. It may be that Kim has simply been encouraged to return to that tradition.
Instability in North Korea
Ri’s disappearance could also be a symptom of wider instability in North Korea. Kim’s authority in the country has been a source of speculation since he first came to power in 2011 as a 27-year-old with little experience. In 2013, he had his uncle, and one of the most powerful figures in the country, executed. Just this week, South Korean publication Chosun Ilbo reported that North Korea is engaged in a purge of military officers with family members who have defected. Such a mindset may lead to Kim being extra cautious about his wife’s whereabouts and activities, believes Toshimitsu Shigemura, a professor at Tokyo’s Waseda University.
"There have also been reports of instability in Pyongyang and even of several attempted attacks, including by factions in the North Korean military, against Kim last year," Shigemura told the Daily Telegraph. "It is possible that Ri has not appeared in public because she is being closely guarded."
Something More Sinister
It has also been suggested that Ri may have done something to earn the wrath of Kim, or possibly his sister. Kim Yeo Jong has become increasingly powerful in the country after her promotion to a vice director in the Workers Party Central Committee. In September, it was reported that she had sent several high-ranking officials for re-education.
Kim, himself, is no stranger to impulsively and violently dealing with individuals whom he believes have betrayed him. As well as putting his uncle before a firing squad, North Korea’s Defense Minister Hyon Yong Chol was executed last year, according to South Korea’s spy agency. Further displaying his rash and ruthless streak, it was reported in August that Kim had a senior official executed for falling asleep at a meeting. Indeed, Kim is said to have ordered 64 public executions this year alone.
There had even been rumors that Kim had his ex-girlfriend, Hyon Song Wol, executed before she apparently appeared on state television last year.