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Update No: 109 - (26/07/12)

North Korea: The ‘mystery lady’? & Was Ri really ill?
[Note: This Update was completed before North Korea announced on July 25 that Kim Jong-eun is indeed married, to Ri Sol-ju]

July was doubly eventful in North Korea, with two separate bursts of outside excitement in regard to the activities and ups and downs of its leadership. Kim Jong-eun was seen out and about with an unnamed young woman, including at a concert which featured unprecedented Western cultural motifs and styles.

Later in the month, a trio of promotions and demotions hinted at power struggles behind the scenes. Typically for Pyongyang, in both episodes the ratio of fact to speculation leaned heavily toward the latter. Yet in each case the observable tip of the iceberg was interesting, and the temptation to explore the unseen bits warranted.

Who’s that girl?
As noted in last month’s NewNations Update, Kim Jong-eun has to keep a delicate balance between continuity – without which he would have no claim to rule North Korea – and the change for which many yearn. In July he struck two minor but significant blows for change.

Elsewhere, nothing is more normal than for a leader’s spouse, especially a wife, to appear in public. That has not been North Korea’s way in recent years, since the late Kim Jong-il had a complex love-life. The dear leader was not actually married to either of the mothers of his three sons, and Kim Jong-eun’s mother Ko Yong-hui, who died of cancer in Paris in 2004 aged 51, was born in Japan. Only now is a cult of Ko being constructed, as in a documentary made last year – where she is called Ri Un-sil – and recently leaked via Japan. It can be seen (no subtitles, alas) at

As with spouses, so with offspring. Twice now the DPRK has made complications for itself by keeping son-successors under wraps for years. Both Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-eun thus went in a trice from being officially non-existent – if naturally the subjects of much rumour – to centre stage. Similarly, Kim Jong-il’s very visible ill-health in his final years was totally off-limits in North Korea as a topic while he was alive, yet was freely admitted in his official obituaries. Here as so often, the DPRK moves in mysterious and rather self-defeating ways.

A thoroughbred
In this context it was thus intriguing, and no accident, for Kim Jong-eun to appear in public with a personable young woman: unnamed, so the rumour machine went into overdrive. She resembles his sister Kim Yo-jong, who was seen mourning for their father in December but is otherwise little-known. Others named her as Hyon Song-wol: supposedly a former flame of Kim’s who used to sing with the Bochonbo Electronic Music Band, hitherto the DPRK’s top pop ensemble, where her hits included 2005’s “Excellent Horse-Like Lady”; this can be seen at (Those who suspect this is not the best rendering of the Korean are right: “Thoroughbred girl” would be less outlandish.)

Ms Hyon is said to be married to someone else, but that is not necessarily a problem. So was Kim Jong-il’s earlier mistress Song Hye-rim: four years his senior, born in South Korea and mother of his eldest son, the now semi-disinherited and Macau-based Kim Jong-nam. Song later sought treatment for depression in Moscow, where she died in 2002 and is buried.

Whatever her identity, Kim Jong-eun’s companion appears to be his consort. Body language suggests this, for example when they visited a kindergarten; although mostly she is modestly in the background, with Kim’s powerful uncle in-law Jang Song-thaek. (This can be watched at She is also briefly glimpsed during Kim’s visit to Kumsusan Palace, the mausoleum of his grandfather Kim Il-sung (soon to be joined there by Kim Jong-il) on July 8, the date of Kim Il-sung’s death in 1994. No casual companion would be pictured on so solemn an occasion, but a sister might. (See, 3:20 minutes in.)

Mickey, meet Rocky
The mystery lady also sat beside Kim Jong-eun in the front row for the debut concert on July 6 of the Moranbong Band. Elsewhere this would be banal, but for North Korea it broke new ground. The 10-strong ensemble, all attractive young women, included three violinists who stood out front and swayed in short black dresses. Other musicians wore long gowns, even the electric guitarist. Five singers alternated between mini and maxi dresses. While it began with local fare, the programme was unusual, if not unique – though this went unmentioned in KCNA’s account – in also featuring western numbers, such as My Way and the theme to Sylverster Stallone’s Rocky films, clips from which were back-projected. Remarkably this included Rocky IV (1985), where our hero goes to Moscow and symbolically vanquishes communism. At one point Mickey Mouse, Winnie the Pooh and other Disney characters joined the band on stage. Several clips of these scenes are available online, eg:

My Way
Disney (16 minutes)

All this attracted much comment. The Disney Corporation was quick to point out that North Korea had neither sought nor been granted permission to use its characters. Sinatra’s best-known – if hardly his best – song is rather apt for North Korea: ‘ I Did It My Way’ conveys the essence of Juche quite well. Rocky 4 is inexplicable, if content has any meaning at all. In general, to state the obvious, this embrace of US popular culture seemed completely at odds with the DPRK’s usual fierce anti-Americanism – which elsewhere was as virulent as ever.

We won
On July 23, for instance, it was announced that “Grand celebrations of the war victory day will be held on the initiative of Marshal Kim Jong Un.” This refers to July 27 1953, the date of the Armistice – there is still no peace treaty – which ended the 1950-53 Korean War. With the new border along the ceasefire line, the ironically named Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), not so far from the pre-war 38th Parallel whereby the US and USSR partitioned the peninsula in 1945, most historians regard the war as a draw, at a terrible cost: four million died, and US bombing reduced the fledgling DPRK to rubble. That is not how North Korea sees it. For the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), all this was a famous victory to celebrate:

Kim Il Sung led the Korean People's Army, which was only two years old since it was developed into regular armed forces, and the Korean people, who had been members of ruined nation just five years ago, to defeat the brigandish U.S. imperialists, who boasted of being the "strongest" in the world, and their stooges and honorably protected the sovereignty of the country and the nation.

Under the leadership of the party and the leader the army and people of the DPRK performed immortal exploits in the war and achieved great victory, thus becoming the first heroic army and people who defeated the U.S. imperialist aggressors in the world.

Grandiose plans for culture
But Mickey Mouse and even Rocky are cool. There does seem a cognitive dissonance here. Nor was the concert a one-off flash in the pan, still less a private show just for the elite. The Moranbong Band gave several performances, shown on television. Clearly this is meant to be cutting-edge stuff. KCNA trumpeted that “Kim Jong Un organized the Moranbong band as required by the new century, prompted by a grandiose plan to bring about a dramatic turn in the field of literature and arts this year in which a new century of Juche Korea begins.”

Yet the terms in which KCNA praised the band were old-fashioned and hardly appropriate: “The performers showed well the indomitable spirit and mental power of the servicepersons and people of the DPRK dashing ahead for the final victory in the drive to build a thriving nation under the guidance of Kim Jong Un.” Further: “The band staged a performance of strong individual character for being revolutionary and appealing in contents and unique, peculiar, modern and popular in style. Just 10 odd musicians presented such sublime, rich and thrilling melodies as those of a grand orchestra with refined rendition while young singers sang songs in an emotional and cheerful manner as required by the music, making the audience seized with excitement and joy throughout the performance.”

Moreover, the creation of the band – “just several months old”, i.e. after the death of Kim Jong-il – was explicitly credited to Kim Jong-eun. After the concert, Kim was quoted as

“express[ing] great satisfaction …that the creators and artistes staged a performance high in ideological and artistic value by displaying revolutionary creative spirit. He congratulated them on their successful demonstration performance and extended thanks of the Supreme Commander of the Korean People's Army. He said repeatedly that the performance given by the band was the one spurring the revolution and construction, a stirring and unique one reflecting the breath of the times and the one which reached a new phase in its contents and style…He underscored the need to steadily develop the traditional music and popular music in a balanced manner to suit the thoughts and feelings of Koreans and their aesthetic taste while meeting the need of the times and the people's desire. He expressed the expectation and conviction that the creators and artistes of the band would creditably fulfill in the future, too, their mission as a dynamic bugler, engine and genuine companion of the army and people in the efforts to glorify the country, the patriotic legacy left by President Kim Il Sung and leader Kim Jong Il.

New wine, old bottles
Since the audience included “officials, creators, artistes, writers and journalists of literary and art, media and art educational institutions”, this should be seen as a new line in cultural policy – so more innovations may be expected. A subsequent KCNA report on July 16 made explicit the final step in the argument, and used the F word. It quoted a conservatoire teacher as citing “the dear respected Kim Jong Un's remark that foreign music, suitable to Koreans' emotions, should be introduced and developed in Korean style.”

The obvious question is how far such new wine can be poured into the old bottles of what has passed for culture in the DPRK hitherto, without bursting them. “New” is relative, of course: My Way is hardly Lady Gaga. The ever-dyspeptic conservative South Korean daily Chosun Ilbo, itself not known for cutting-edge tastes, noted in a comment piece on July 16 that “North Korea … is now being led by a young man who is enamoured of the American pop culture of yesteryear and believes embracing it constitutes a great leap forward.” It then sneered, a propos any future North-South summit: “The idea that [our] next president should be discussing the future of the peninsula with a 20-something backwoods hipster is simply pathetic.” The article was called: “What Is the Point of Talking to Kim Jong-un?”

That is too harsh, and also a non sequitur. The bits of Western culture that Kim Jong-eun seems to want to introduce may be a retro pastiche, but in the DPRK context this is radical – and it is the direction that counts. This sends a signal; we wait to see what else may follow.

Politics as pond life
July’s second burst of excitement in Pyongyang was very different and rather more typical. Away from theatrical shows of unity such as the Arirang mass display, North Korean politics can be likened to a stagnant, murky pond. Almost nothing is visible, but now and then a big bubble rises to the surface and plops: a sure sign that there is teeming life down below.

Starting on July 15, three things happened – or perhaps just one bigger thing – on successive days. First, the Politburo met on a Sunday, which seems unusual, and with rare promptitude announced that it had retired Ri Yong-ho, North Korea’s most powerful soldier, on account of illness. Separately, a day later an unknown general, Hyon Yong-chol, was promoted to vice-marshal. Separately again, a report two days after named Hyon as chief of the general staff (CGS): a post hitherto occupied by Ri. In between, Kim Jong-eun was proclaimed as Marshal of the DPRK, to great rejoicing throughout the land according to official media.

Mentor outmanoeuvred
Ri’s abrupt departure was a surprise. Aged 69, young for North Korea’s elite, he looked well enough in recent public appearances; so this is almost certainly a pretext. His spell at the top was brief: a little over three years. Hardly known in February 2009 when named as CGS, he vaulted over more established figures to become the most politically senior of the Korean Peoples’ Army (KPA) top brass, and a key figure in smoothing Kim Jong-eun’s succession.

When the young Kim was unveiled to his people and the world in September 2010, his first post was a newly created one shared with Ri, doubtless as his mentor: they were both vice-chairmen of the Central Military Commission of the ruling Worlers’ Party of Korea (WPK). Significantly, on the podium and at meetings the uniformed Ri stood or was seated between the two Kims: the young successor and his by then visibly ailing father Kim Jong-il, who would die just 15 months later in December 2011.

Perhaps we should have seen Ri’s ouster coming, for earlier this year he suffered a reverse. In April, at a special party meeting timed for the centenary of the birth of Kim Il-sung which also saw Kim Jong-eun formally appointed head of the WPK, something odd happened. A long-time Kim family friend, Choe Ryong-hae, whose career had been wholly civilian, was suddenly made a KPA vice-marshal and put in charge of politics in the army. Choe also shot up to rank fourth in the WPK Politburo Presidium, one rung above Ri, whom he increasingly replaced as Kim Jong-eun’s point man in the KPA. So perhaps the writing was on the wall.

But why, exactly? Choe’s KPA appointment is one of several signs that the WPK now seeks to rein in the power which the KPA had gained (at the party’s expense) under Kim Jong-il. As a military man – not a pretend one, like Choe – Ri can hardly have been happy about that. There may have been personality clashes too. And some analysts do give credence to illness. Another story is that Ri had angered Kim Jong-eun by trying (and failing) to hide a group of malnourished soldiers when Kim visited an army base on New Year’s Day. But in that case, why wait for more than six months to get rid of him?

Those mines are mine
One theory being canvassed in Seoul adds an economic twist to the party-military rivalry. By this account the WPK wants not only to clip the KPA’s wings, but also to get back lucrative mineral and other export resources that the military had managed to gain control of in recent years. This could tie in with an intriguing passage in Kim Jong-eun’s first treatise, on land management, published in May, where he complains that

Some people are now attempting to develop the valuable underground resources of the country at random on this or that excuse to export them for not a great sum of foreign exchange. This is an attitude lacking in far-sightedness and an expression of lack of patriotism. A rigid system should be established of screening and approving the development of underground resources of the country by the Ministry of State Natural Resources Development and the non-permanent Underground Resources Development Committee to ensure that unauthorized or disorderly exploitation of underground resources is not revealed.

On this account, Ri Yong-ho was presumably defending the KPA’s perks, and paid the price. If true, this would echo events in China in the quite recent past. By the 1990s the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) had branched out into various often unrelated economic activities. The party and cabinet feared that this business empire was making the PLA too powerful as well as corrupt. By the turn of the century the military had been forced to shed most of these commercial interests. The KPA may prove a tougher nut to crack, since the environment in North Korea is very different. A booming and marketising China offered opportunities all round. By contrast, in a stagnant DPRK which still refuses reform, the few resources worth having are the subject of fierce struggles by rival groups to win rent-seeking benefits.

Whatever the precise reason for it, Ri’s departure is unlikely to be the last such ruction. It suggests that, as one would expect, Kim Jong-eun’s succession remains a work in progress. All political successions are tricky, especially in dictatorships. Kim’s own promotion to Marshal can be read in different ways. Formally, it ends an anomaly whereby Kim, hitherto a mere four-star general yet also commander in chief, was nominally outranked by several KPA vice-marshals. There is one other full marshal: Ri Ul-sol, a nonagenarian ex-guerrilla whose rank is no longer given in the few recent mentions of him.

In any case, Kim Jong-eun is now styled as ‘Marshal of the DPRK’ rather than of the KPA, suggesting that this title has a wider national resonance than military rank alone. But why the need to promote him, and why now? Is it a sign of strength, or weakness? Did Kim, or those around him, feel a need to make the point as to who is in charge? We cannot be sure of any of this. But we can, and should, watch how Kim Jong-eun exercises power. Will he prove a Mickey Mouse figurehead, or his own man – who can truly echo Sinatra and ‘do it his way’?


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