With the historic inter-Korean summit scheduled for April 27, experts say Ri Sol-ju, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s wife, is likely to accompany her husband on the cross-border trip.
Ri has maintained a largely veiled existence since the North‘s state media identified her as the wife of Kim Jong-un in 2012.
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and his wife Ri Sol-ju wave from a car as they bid farewell to Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan in Beijing. (AP-Yonhap)
That is, until she was seen alongside Kim as he made his diplomatic debut in a summit with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Beijing last month. The surprise trip marked Kim’s first known trip outside the North since taking power in late 2011, signaling the end of Kim’s almost six years of seclusion from the international scene.
Although it has yet to be officially confirmed, experts predict with the recent changes surrounding Ri’s status in the North Korean regime, she is likely to assume the role of a “modern first lady,” amid Kim’s efforts to break diplomatic isolation. Kim’s predecessors had a habit of embarking on foreign trips without their spouses.
“Ri is expected to have tea time with (South Korean) first lady Kim Jung-sook and attend a luncheon or state dinner hosted by President Moon Jae-in, alongside Kim Jong-un (on the visit)” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies.
Her status within the North Korean regime has been seemingly elevated, with the North Korean media addressing her as “lady,” instead of the former “comrade,” since the North’s large-scale military parade in February.
Cheong Wa Dae on Friday said the official title of Ri would be “lady” or “Mrs. Ri,” should there be a need to address her in the future. The North Korean leader holds the official title of chairman, as he heads the country‘s state affairs commission, it previously said.
Analysts also say that with the South Korean side of the truce village of Panmunjeom set as the summit venue, President Moon Jae-in and first lady Kim Jung-sook greeting the North Korean couple will help showcase the alleviation of military tensions on the peninsula.
“The look of President Moon and first lady Kim jointly greeting Kim Jong-un and Ri, it will be an opportunity to show the international community the easing military tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Also a luncheon or a dinner would be a peaceful way to wrap up the agreements reached during the summit and a platform for further talks in the future,” said Kim Yong-hyun, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University.
Ri was also present at the welcoming dinner hosted for Moon’s special envoys to Pyongyang early last month, another indication of her growing diplomatic presence as first lady.
Ri is viewed as the first spouse of a North Korean leader to take on such a role. Kim Ok, the de facto fourth wife of Kim Jong-il who also served as his personal secretary, accompanied her husband on his visits to China and Russia, but it was believed to be as part of her duty as a secretary, rather than as a first lady.
On the other hand, some experts say the two leaders are likely to wrap up the summit with a focus on achieving a more “practical mood” for the meeting, and will refrain from holding events involving their spouses.
“The summit is likely to be more of a ‘one-shot’ talk. ... What’s important is to show (progress) and not just showcasing the meeting through banquets, which is why I believe Ri Sol-ju won’t accompany Kim on the trip,” Ko Young-hwan, visiting scholar at the Institute for National Security Strategy in Seoul, recently told local broadcaster YTN.
The inter-Korean summit, which is expected to be a one-day meeting, came at the agreement the two Koreas reached when Moon’s special envoys talked with Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang last month.
The main agenda items for the summit are expected to concern denuclearization on the peninsula and declaring an official end to the Korean War. The two Koreas remain technically at war, as the 1950-53 Korean War ended in a truce, not a peace treaty.
The summit will mark the third of its kind, and the first time that a North Korean leader has stepped on South Korean soil since the end of the Korean War. The first two summits were held in Pyongyang in 2000 and 2007.
US President Donald Trump has also said he will meet Kim by the end of May, after a South Korean delegation delivered Kim‘s message expressing the willingness to discuss denuclearization.
By Jung Min-kyung (firstname.lastname@example.org)