Experts: Presence of North Korean leader's wife a special gesture

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his wife Ri Sol Ju at an event on Rungna Islet along the Taedong River in Pyongyang in a 2012 photo. Ms Ri is rarely seen at diplomatic events.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his wife Ri Sol Ju at an event on Rungna Islet along the Taedong River in Pyongyang in a 2012 photo. Ms Ri is rarely seen at diplomatic events.PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL • North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's decision to include his wife Ri Sol Ju in welcoming Seoul's special envoys on Monday hints at his willingness to engage the South, experts said.

On Monday, Seoul's National Security Office chief Chung Eui Yong and other special envoys arrived in the North Korean capital Pyongyang for a two-day visit aimed at encouraging the North and the United States to engage in talks with each other.

In an unusual move, Mr Kim met the delegation on the first day of the visit, and later hosted a welcome dinner.

The dinner event, which lasted more than four hours, was also attended by Ms Ri and Mr Kim's younger sister Kim Yo Jong.

"(Ri's appearance) is showing the highest courtesy, in response to South Korea President Moon Jae In and First Lady Kim Jung Sook having received Kim Yo Jong," said Dr Yang Moo Jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies.

Tensions between the two Koreas eased during the recent Winter Olympics in South Korea, with Mr Moon playing host to a high-level North Korean delegation that included Ms Kim Yo Jong.

Following the North Korean delegation's visit, Mr Kim invited Mr Moon to North Korea for a summit, which Mr Moon said the two sides should work towards.

"It remains to be seen whether it is a ploy to (appear as a) conventional country. Regardless, it is an extraordinary and proactive gesture," said Dr Yang.

Although Ms Ri has appeared in North Korean media at domestic events, she has rarely been seen attending diplomatic events. Mr Kim has met foreign officials on seven occasions since taking power, but Ms Ri has appeared on only one other occasion apart from Monday's dinner with Seoul's envoys.

 
 

The first time North Korean media showed Ms Ri at a diplomatic event was a welcome performance staged for Cuba's Miguel Diaz-Canel, the First Vice-President of the Council of State and Council of Ministers, in 2015.

Monday's appearance by Ms Ri has been interpreted by some as North Korea's attempt at maintaining the appearance of being a "normal" state.

The change in the way the North Korean media referred to Ms Ri is thought to be part of the strategy.

North Korean media referred to Ms Ri by the title "lady" for the first time last month, in an apparent attempt to cast her in the same light as the wives of other male heads of state.

Until last month, Ms Ri was referred to as "comrade" by the North's state media outlets.

THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 07, 2018, with the headline 'Experts: Presence of North Korean leader's wife a special gesture'. Print Edition | Subscribe