Kim Jong-un’s rarely-seen wife makes her mark in China

Censors quickly move to block online discussion of Ri Sol-ju’s looks and style

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un broke with practice in bringing his wife Ri Sol-ju on his first diplomatic outing to China, delighting many Chinese who discussed her looks and fashion sense before censors blocked any online references to her.

It was Kim's first foreign trip since he came to power after the death of his father Kim Jong-il in 2011, and it came ahead of a planned summit with South Korean president Moon Jae-in on April 27th and with Donald Trump sometime in May.

During his visit to Beijing, for which he travelled overland on his family’s armoured train, Kim said he was “committed to Korean denuclearisation”.

China’s busy online community commented on photographs of Ri carried on state media, focusing on what she wore and how she looked. She wore at least three different outfits during the two-day visit.


However, the censors quickly moved in and shut down any mention of Ri, in Chinese or Korean. What remained on the Baidu search engine were a few photographs and comments from 2013.

People who saw the comments before the social media shutdown said there were comparisons to stars of the South Korean historical costume dramas and movies that are popular in China.

One person writing on the Weibo social media said she was “beautiful and likeable”, betting she would be good at diplomacy.

China Central Television (CCTV) showed Ri accompanying her husband as they observed a model of the world's largest radio telescope, the 500m dish based in southwestern China which will listen for signs of life in space. The photograph echoed similar pictures from the propaganda archives in Pyongyang of Ri and her husband reviewing structures and projects of significance.

The South China Morning Post in Hong Kong quoted local fashion designer William Tang Tat-chi saying her style was "subtle" but not conservative, although the muted tones contrasted with the bolder flower patterns worn by Xi's wife, Peng Liyuan.


Both Ri and Peng were singing stars before assuming the traditionally demure and modest roles required of the wives of communist leaders in their respective nations.

That said, North Korean women have been prominent in overseas visits of late. Kim's younger sister Kim Yo-jong represented the country at the Winter Olympics in South Korea last month.

We know relatively little for sure about “Comrade Ri Sol-ju”, although she was almost certainly a singer for the popular Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble and is said to have studied vocal music in China.

She was reportedly a member of the cheerleading team from the North that visited South Korea in 2005 during the Asian Athletics Championships.

She frequently disappears from public view for long periods, prompting speculation that either that she has fallen foul of one of the country’s bloody purges or that she is pregnant.

Born in September 1989, she probably married Kim in 2012. She has between one and three children.

For the record, Kim wore a pin-striped version of the Mao-collared suits that he generally favours for public appearances, although he did take people by surprise when he came out with a silver-grey suit and matching tie for his New Year’s speech this year, during which he took initial steps towards easing tension over the nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula.

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan

Clifford Coonan, an Irish Times contributor, spent 15 years reporting from Beijing