North Korean leader Kim Jong Un appears to be trying out a new tactic to boost the image of his authoritarian regime — he's putting the spotlight on the women in his life.
Over the past few months, Kim has increasingly shared the stage with his younger sister, who became an instant celebrity as his envoy to the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, and his wife, a former singer in her late 20s.
For sure, there is only one star of the show in North Korea, and that is Kim himself.
But the greater public role for Kim Yo Jong, his sister, and Ri Sol Ju, his wife, comes as Kim is embarking on a "charm offensive" — a series of summits and diplomatic moves that have significantly raised his international profile. The timing suggests he's hoping to change the optics of his regime, if not its iron-fisted domestic policies, by presenting a softer face to the outside world.
The new look may be on display again later this month, when Kim is to sit down for his first summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in.South Korean media suggest Kim is planning to bring his wife to the April 27 meeting on the south side of the Demilitarized Zone that divides the two nations.
If he does, it would be in keeping with the North's new normal.
Ri accompanied Kim on his surprise trip to China for a summit with President Xi Jinping last month and was seen looking quite stylish as she beamed beside him at state functions. After Moon, Kim is scheduled to meet with President Donald Trump in May or June, raising the possibility of a click-bait bonanza — Ri meeting her U.S. counterpart, Melania Trump.
Ri was among a select group of young women dispatched to South Korea to cheer for North Korea's team at the 2005 Asian Athletics Championships, suggesting she comes from a family in good standing. She's believed to be 28 years old. Little else is known about her.
Unlike Kim's father — the identity of his mother was long kept a state secret — Kim has appeared with his wife fairly frequently since their first official outing together, to an amusement park in 2012. She was with him when former NBA star Dennis Rodman serenaded Kim with a birthday song before an exhibition basketball game in 2014.
Kim's younger sister, meanwhile, has also entered the stage in a big way.
Her coming-out party came in February, when she became the first member of the North's Kim dynasty to travel to South Korea, for the opening ceremony of the Olympics. She quickly proceeded to steal the show, looking almost regal as she held court with South Korean President Moon and other international dignitaries.
At 30, Kim Yo Jong could well be her brother's closest confidant, a role reminiscent of the relationship between Kim Jong Un's father, Kim Jong Il, and his aunt, Kim Kyong Hui. She and Kim Jong Un lived in Switzerland in relative isolation for several years as children. An alternate to the ruling party's powerful politburo since October last year, she is believed to be in charge of maintaining her brother's public image and cult of personality.
Her public appearances before Pyeongchang were limited to occasional events where she was seen serving her brother. With her name almost never mentioned in the state media, and never with an explanation of her pedigree, it's quite possible that until news of the Olympic visit was aired, most North Koreans had no idea who she was.