Kim Jong-un’s wife Ri Sol-ju may accompany the North Korean leader to his first summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in later this month, in a sign of her growing role as a key player in the regime’s international diplomacy.
With just three weeks to go before the landmark meeting of the two Korean leaders on the heavily militarised border, the South’s press is speculating that Ms Ri will share high tea with their own first lady, Kim Jung-sook, as well as attending a state lunch or dinner.
If confirmed, the occasion would be another significant step in the rapid rise of Ms Ri, alongside Mr Kim’s younger sister Kim Yo-jong, in presenting the softer side of the regime in an ongoing charm offensive with Seoul.
Believed to be 28, she reportedly married Mr Kim in 2009, but their union was only made public in 2012, and the young wife remained largely behind the scenes until last year, during which time she may, or may not, have given birth to three children.
The existence of one baby daughter was confirmed by former US basketball star Dennis Rodman in March 2013.
Very little is known about Ms Ri’s background. She reportedly comes from an elite Pyongyang family and was once a cheerleader in the squad that took this year’s Winter Olympics by storm – in her case during the 2005 Asian Athletics Championships.
She may also be a science graduate and a former singer in the popular Unhasu Orchestra. Kenji Fujimoto, former personal sushi chef to Mr Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, described her to CNN in 2012 as “charming”, with a voice that was “so soft.”
It was only late last year that the mysterious Ms Ri began to emerge as a public persona in the secretive regime, appearing alongside her husband on PR offensives to Pyongyang factories.
But it was her attendance at a political strategy dinner between Kim Jong-un and high level South Korean envoys in early March that sealed her growing role in international matters.
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An amiable Ms Ri is said to have eased the atmosphere at the wine-fuelled meeting that set the path for keynote future summits first between Mr Kim and Mr Moon, and later with US President Donald Trump.
When South Korean national security chief, Chung Eui-yong, told Mr Kim he should quit smoking for health reasons, an amused Ms Ri dispelled any awkwardness by clapping her hands and saying that she agreed, reported the Chosun Ilbo.
Stylish and smiling, she also joined him last month on the state’s bulletproof green train to Beijing, on Mr Kim’s debut overseas trip since rising to power in 2011. In doing so, she broke new ground as a North Korean First Lady abroad, on an equal footing with her husband.
The staged photoshoots from the trip, along with shots of the pair enjoying a K-pop concert of South Korean musicians in Pyongyang last week, form part of growing efforts by the regime to show the world an image of a modern, and normal, young married couple.