North Korea’s Mysterious First Lady Was One of Kim Jong-Un’s Cheerleaders

April 4, 2019 Updated: April 5, 2019

For years, North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un kept his family and personal life immensely private; the leader of the world’s most notoriously secretive nation was as elusive with his home life as he was with his ruling practices and political roles within the government.

In the last few years, though, North Korea’s “first lady”—Kim’s wife Ri Sol-ju—has slowly offered up more and more personal information about herself. And while it may have simply been a part of the country’s push to appear more transparent in some matters to the rest of the world, it provides plenty of curious eyes with fascinating information to dive into on possibly one of the world’s most interesting political supporting figures.

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un (2nd L) and his wife Ri Sol-ju (L) toast with South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in (2nd R) and his wife Kim Jung-sook (R) during the official dinner at the end of their historic summit at the truce village of Panmunjom on April 27, 2018. (©Getty Images | KOREA SUMMIT PRESS POOL/AFP)

Ri has been the source of speculation for years. There were reports that her life may have been in danger back in 2016, when she “disappeared from the public eye for seven months,” and her age has been guessed at almost as often as the official year that she and Kim tied the knot (reports put the year anywhere from 2009 to 2011).

In March of 2018, though, she made more than just a public appearance; she travelled with her husband to Beijing on his first overseas trip. She’s been brought out for various media appearances, and the public has become ravenous to learn a bit more about her.

Born to a wealthy, upper-class family in the northern Hamgyong Province, Ri’s father was a professor and her mother a doctor. It has been reported that she attended Kim Il-sung University, but information on the first lady beyond that is all still speculation—even the number of children she has.

That reported information, though, is growing is volume over time. It is believed that she and Kim have three children, two daughters and a son—and although there’s been no official confirmation, it’s believed that Ri was a cheerleader for the nation’s olympic team before getting married to the current leader right around the time of his father’s death.

What most seem to talk about, though, isn’t her upbringing or her history; it’s her fashion.

Some believe that subtle parts of her wardrobe are signs that she has been a quiet indication of the slow softening of North Korea’s policies under her husband’s regimes, particularly in relation to how women are allowed to dress and behave in the rigid nation. Since assuming power, Kim Jong-Un has loosened enforcement on the bans his father put for women on things like wearing trousers in public or riding bicycles—and the fashion-forward styles of his wife could conceivably have something to do with it. In a country known for never wearing “brand” clothing (at least, in the eyes of the rest of the world), Ri has been spotted boasting designed handbags from western nations, to boot.

The amount of information known on the first lady is still a fraction of what the world knows about just about every other political spouse, which leaves her conspicuously mysterious. But as the world slowly learns more about Kim and the nation he oversees, the embracing of Ri as a public figure—something his father never did with any of his multiple wives—could be a sign of slowly changing tides.