Despite being married to one of the world’s most famous leaders, the life of Ri Sol-ju has been cloaked in mystery. Since her union to Kim Jong-un was made official in 2012, she’s dealt with rumors regarding her age, her past, and her long periods of absence in the public eye.
As tensions continue to mount between North Korea and the United States, increased interest in Kim Jong-un’s family has only increased. This is especially true with Ri Sol-ju, whose reputation has proven as divisive as that of her husband.
With that in mind, here’s what you need to know about North Korea’s First Lady:
1. There Are Conflicting Accounts of Her Early Life
Ri Sol-ju’s birth year is presumed to be between 1985 and 1989. According to the NY Post, she attended school in the country’s capital, Pyongyang, where she is said to have studied music and performance. It is also believed that she is one of the few North Koreans to travel elsewhere in the world, as she traveled to South Korea in 2005 as part of the country’s cheerleading squad for the Asian Athletics Championship.
While some say Ri Sol-ju hails from a family that numbers among the Communist elite, there are others who’ve claimed that she was born to an average family. There are also conflicting reports that she may have been a professional singer and a member of the pop group in North Korea. This has never been proven, though Business Insider does report that North Korea launched a campaign to confiscate any proof of her music career after she married Kim Jong-un:
Authorities are particularly keen to collect all copies of CDs and tapes which contain the Ri song ‘Sobaeksu’ and have her picture on the front cover. The source revealed, “They are going out into every area of Pyongyang to collect every CD that contains a recording of Ri Sol Joo. It’s causing a bit of a commotion in the markets.
There have even been those who theorize that Ri Sol-ju isn’t even her real name. In 2012, the Daily Beast asserted that “For one thing, Ri Sol Ju almost certainly is a pseudonym—leaving the question of what her true identity is.”
2. Her Marriage to Kim Jong-un Was Announced in 2012, Though it is Unclear When They Met
Equally mysterious are the circumstances under which Ri Sol-ju and Kim Jong-un met. According to the NY Post, Kim Jong-un was previously involved with a singer named Hyon Song-wol, who was also part of the Bochonbo Electronic Music Band.
The couple allegedly met at school in Switzerland and dated for a time afterwards, but things ended when Jong-un’s father Kim Jong-il demanded he break things off. Oddly enough, there are some who still believe that Song-wol and Ri Sol-ju might actually be the same woman.
Excluding this theory, Ri Sol-ju and Jong-un were first pictured together at a summer event in 2012. Shortly afterwards, an official statement was released confirming their marriage. It is unclear when the two were wed, but Daily Express suggests that the ceremony took place some time in 2009. “The late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il arranged his youngest son’s marriage in a hurry after suffering a stroke in 2008,” said analyst Cheong Seong-chang.
3. She’s Considered a Fashion Trendsetter in North Korea
For better or for worse, Ri Sol-ju’s fashion sensibility have been a hotly debated topic in North Korea. According to Radio Free Asia, she has “become a style setter for young women in Pyongyang since she made her media debut as Kim Jong-un’s wife.” She’s known for her taste in luxury brands, as well as high heels, sparkling broaches, and foreign designs.
Radio Free Asia reveals that her influence has even led to the creation of knockoff designer clothing in North Korea, so that women may dress like Ri Sol-ju for a fraction of the price.
The topic of price, however, has also led many to criticize her. In a 2012 piece titled “In a Starving Country, Luxury for a Few”, The New York Times says that her fashion choices speak to an increasing divide between the Kim family and the rest of the impoverished citizens of North Korea. Ri Sol-ju sparked further controversy when she was photographed with a $1,600 Christian Dior handbag– which cost about 16 times the average monthly wage of a North Korean worker.
4. She’s Gone Lengthy Periods of Time Without Being Seen in Public
To further add intrigue to her image, Ri Sol-ju has gone through large periods of time where she is nowhere to be seen by the public. The first time she disappeared in 2012, many theorized that she might have died or become pregnant with Kim Jong-un’s child. Within months, she was back at her husband’s side, but the amount of appearances have been sparing in comparison.
This mysterious occurrence was reignited last year, as Daily Mail reports that she went missing for a total of eight months, starting on March 28. Once again, theories began to surface as to why, with some speculating that there had been a falling out between Ri Sol-ju and her powerful sister Kim Yo-jong.
Professor Toshimitsu Shigemura told the Daily Telegraph: “There are several possible reasons, including that she is pregnant or that there is some sort of problem between the two of them.”
Shigemura also said that safety was a potential reason for her secret whereabouts. “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. It is possible that Ri has not appeared in public because she is being closely guarded.”
Ri Sol-ju returned to the spotlight last December. The real cause for her disappearance remains unknown.
5. She & Kim Jong-un Are Rumored to Have 2 Children
There have been reports that Kim Jong-un welcomed a baby in 2010, but it is unknown whether Ri is the child’s mother. “Ri Sol-ju performed on stage in 2010 as a member of the Unhasu Orchestra, when Kim Jong-un became the father of his first child,” wrote newspaper The Chosunilbo, “In North Korea, it is unthinkable for a pregnant first lady to perform on stage.” The name of this child (reportedly a boy) has yet to be revealed publicly.
In 2013, former NBA player Dennis Rodman paid a highly publicized visit to the Kim family in North Korea, and he had plenty to say about the couple’s newborn daughter. “I held their baby Ju-ae and spoke with Ms. Ri as well,” he told The Guardian, “He’s a good dad and has a beautiful family.”
Despite Rodman’s account, however, The National Intelligence services remains unsure of how many or how hold Kim Jong-un’s children really are.