Why has North Korea kept silent on Kim Jong-un's wife until now?

The answer may be as simple as 'it was too risky.'

KCNA/Reuters
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and his wife, who was named by the state broadcaster as Ri Sol-ju, visit the Rungna People's Pleasure Ground, in Pyongyang in this undated photo released on July 25.

For the first time today, North Korea acknowledged that the mysterious woman who has been seen accompanying North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in a recent series of public appearances is his wife.

Ever since the unnamed woman was first spotted with Kim at a July 5 concert, speculation has been rampant that she might be either his spouse or younger sister. But today, North Korean media finally reported that her name was Ri Sol-ju, and she was his wife when the woman and Kim attended a ceremony to mark the completion of an amusement park in an islet in Pyongyang.

Many analysts say that one of Kim’s major weaknesses is that he succeeded his father as leader of North Korea at too early an age; he is believed to only be in his late 20s. And some experts say the North’s admission that Ms. Ri is Kim’s wife is aimed at dispelling doubts about his maturity and experience. They say that by portraying Kim as a married man, Pyongyang hopes the North Korean people, as well as the entire world, will stop seeing him as a youthful, untested leader.

All of that makes sense, but why has the North waited so long to make its announcement about Kim’s marital status?

The answer may be as simple as “it was too risky.”

Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung, the founder and first leader of North Korea, pulled off the first Communist hereditary power succession in modern times by installing his son Kim Jong-il as the second leader of North Korea. There was great doubt in people’s minds, including the minds of those in power in the North Korean regime, as to whether this would be possible to pull this off again.

Then, when Kim Jong-il was ready to pass power onto a successor, he managed to pull off another hereditary power succession, something that no one else was doing in the modern age. But it sparked demonstrations within North Korea and was considered a politically risky thing to do. In fact, two days before big celebrations were set for Kim Jong-il's last birthday, demonstrations broke out near the Chinese border, according to South Korea's Chosun Ilbo newspaper.

The paper cited a North Korea source who said Kim Jong-un was “viewed as bloodthirsty and mad.” The source also said, “Almost everyone thinks he was behind the military attacks against ROKS Cheonan and an island under South Korean control, which led to restrictions on humanitarian aid from the South.  This has further worsened standards of living in the North. North Koreans are ready to do just about anything to stop the succession.”

In addition, there were reports of public burnings inside North Korea of photos of members of the Kim Jong-il family prompted by Kim Jong-il’s announcement that Kim Jong-un would be succeeding him as the next North Korean leader.

Under that light, Kim Jong-un wanted to keep his wife a secret until his hold on power was complete, say observers. If Kim Jong-un showed he had a wife, it might signal the prospect of yet another family dynasty, and the regime worried that people of North Korea might catch on and revolt. He’s essentially been hiding his woman from the public eye since he was named North Korea’s leader upon his dad’s death in December.

But when he sacked his army chief Ri Yong-ho last week and was finally installed as marshal, North Korea’s highest military position, his role as leader was finally solidified.

Now that his power has been consolidated and he is truly the supreme leader of North Korea, he can afford to tell the world and his people that he has a wife who will one day bear him a son who he can name as the next leader of North Korea – whether North Koreans and the global community like it or not.  

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