North Korea's first lady appears in public for first time this year

SEOUL (AFP) - North Korea's first lady has appeared in public for the first time this year as part of celebrations marking the birthday of the country's founding leader Kim Il Sung, state media said on Tuesday.

A grinning Ri Sol-Ju, wearing what appeared to be a wedding ring on her left hand, was pictured clapping next to her smiling husband Kim Jong-Un during a men's football match at Kim Il Sung Stadium on Monday, the North's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said.

The images of the couple at a podium flanked by top party officials were published in state media.

The match was being held as part of a lavish series of events celebrating the 103rd birthday of Kim Il Sung, the young leader's grandfather, which falls on Wednesday.

North Korea designates the "Day of the Sun" as a rare two-day national holiday, with art performances, exhibitions and sporting events, and pilgrimages to the late leader's birthplace in Pyongyang.

A former member of the North's Unhasu Orchestra, Ri was last seen in public in December 2014, when she and her husband attended a ceremony to commemorate the third anniversary of the death of Kim Jong Un's father, Kim Jong Il.

Their marriage was only revealed in July 2012 when pictures emerged of a young woman accompanying Kim at official events in a break from the past, when the North's first ladies were kept out of the limelight.

She was pictured wearing stylish, expensive-looking outfits and on one occasion sported what appeared to be a Christian Dior handbag, in a country plagued by chronic poverty.

But Ri has been out of the spotlight since December for unknown reasons.

The Kim dynasty has ruled the isolated state for nearly seven decades with an iron fist and pervasive personality cult.

Kim Il Sung led North Korea from its establishment in 1948 until his death on July 8, 1994.

He was succeeded by his son Kim Jong Il, who also ruled until his death in December 2011 when power was transferred to his son and current leader Kim Jong Un.

KCNA said "an endless stream of people" was visiting, Mangyongdae, the birthplace of Kim Il Sung, as the "Day of the Sun" draws near.

On Sunday, more than 800 runners took place in an international marathon watched by hundreds of fans, including some 600 from abroad, as part of the celebrations.

"Attending the race were more than 600 marathon fans from dozens of countries including Malaysia, Singapore, Sweden, Finland, UK and Italy," KCNA said.

The North announced in February that the April 12 marathon would only be open to domestic runners this year, because of lingering concerns over the Ebola epidemic in west Africa.

But it last month reversed a ban on foreigners taking part in the annual run, after lifting strict travel restrictions aimed at keeping out the Ebola virus.