The first ladies of North and South Korea have one thing in common - passion for music

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his wife Ri Sol Ju with South Korean President Moon Jae In and his wife Kim Jung Sook at the summit yesterday. Ms Ri and Ms Kim were both professional singers before their marriages.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his wife Ri Sol Ju with South Korean President Moon Jae In and his wife Kim Jung Sook at the summit yesterday. Ms Ri and Ms Kim were both professional singers before their marriages.PHOTO: REUTERS

SEOUL • At first glance the two Koreas' first ladies, who attended a banquet following a historic summit between their husbands, would appear to have little in common.

One is in her 20s from the isolated North and the other is in her 60s from the capitalist South, but they share a passion for music - both Ms Ri Sol Ju and Ms Kim Jung Sook were professional singers before their marriages.

Ms Ri, the wife of the North's leader Kim Jong Un, has gained a growing political profile, accompanying Mr Kim to key events at home and abroad, including last month's summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping - whose wife Peng Liyuan is also a former singer.

Believed to be in her late 20s and having three children with Mr Kim, Ms Ri was already a public figure in her own right as a singer for the elite Unhasu band, whose members are chosen by the state based on talent, looks and loyalty to the regime.

The couple tied the knot in 2009, but Ms Ri was publicly identified as Mr Kim's wife only in 2012 after he inherited power from his father the previous year. She quickly became one of the most high-profile women in the country, joining him on numerous "field guidance trips" and for meetings with foreign dignitaries, often wearing luxury brands and once sporting a Christian Dior handbag.

She was described as "respected First Lady" in the North's state media earlier this month - the first time the title was used in the deeply patriarchal country for over 40 years.

It came as she made her first solo public appearance, with analysts saying the moves were an effort to paint the North as a "normal state" ahead of Mr Kim's summits with South Korean President Moon Jae In and US President Donald Trump.

Ms Ri yesterday dined with her Southern counterpart, Ms Kim. The 63-year-old is also a professionally trained vocalist who was once part of the Seoul city choir before becoming a housewife shortly after marriage and having two children.

As Mr Moon gained political prominence, Ms Kim endeared herself to the public with her outgoing and cheerful personality - in contrast to her husband, who is often described as too quiet and bland.

She has sung at public events and was seen performing Psy's horse-riding Gangnam Style dance on a visit to the Philippines last year.

The couple met at a university in Seoul where Ms Kim was studying classical singing and Mr Moon was a law student and pro-democracy activist opposing the then military dictatorship. Mr Moon said they fell in love when she took care of him after he was left unconscious by a police tear gas canister fired at a campus rally, and she supported him while he served a jail term for his activism.

Ms Kim proposed to Mr Moon - a rarity in the conservative South - in defiance of her parents, who were unimpressed by his humble background as the son of North Korean refugees.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 28, 2018, with the headline 'The first ladies have one thing in common - passion for music'. Print Edition | Subscribe