In North Korea, blood is definitely thicker than water. The Kim family has retained power for more than seven decades by relying on the loyalty of an inner circle and claiming a kind of heaven-ordained blood right.

Women who climb to senior positions within the regime get there through family relations. Here are two women who are sometimes pictured with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

Each has a job to do in Kim Jong Un’s North Korea — one to be glamorous and aspirational, the other to represent the importance of hard work — and each offers clues about the running of the opaque regime.

Kim Jong Un accompanied by his wife Ri Sol Ju. (AP/Korean Central News Agency via Korea News Service)
Kim Jong Un accompanied by his wife Ri Sol Ju. (AP/Korean Central News Agency via Korea News Service)

The wife: Ri Sol Ju

“His wife enables Kim Jong Un to present a softer side of himself. They are a modern, young, virile couple on the go,” said Jung H. Pak, a former Korea analyst at the CIA who is now at the Brookings Institution. “This new generation of North Koreans growing up in a nuclear North Korea now associates being assertive with being glamorous. I think it inspires hope.”

  • Kim Jong Un’s wife of seven years
  • Thought to be a few years younger than her 33-year-old husband
  • From an elite family that has helped keep the Kims in power. (Ri Pyong Chol, a former top air force general who is always at Kim’s side during missile launches, is either her grandfather or great-uncle, said Madden.)
  • She is reported to have been a singer with the Unhasu Orchestra, part of the regime’s propaganda efforts, and to have traveled to South Korea in 2005 as a member of a cheering team at an athletic competition.
  • Kim and Ri Sol Ju are thought to have been set up by Kim’s aunt and now-executed uncle, and to have married in 2009 or 2010 with Kim Jong Il’s blessing. They are thought to have two or three children, although only one birth has been confirmed — by basketball player Dennis Rodman..
  • The former Chicago Bull held the baby, a girl called Ju Ae, during a visit to North Korea in 2013. “I held their baby Ju Ae and spoke with Ms. Ri, as well. He’s a good dad and has a beautiful family,” Rodman told reporters after the visit.
  • When Ri is seen in public, playing the role of devoted wife, she is often wearing chic Chanel-type suits and was once spotted with a Christian Dior purse — or at least a knockoff.

Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. (Damir Sagolj/Reuters)
Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. (Damir Sagolj/Reuters)

The younger sister: Kim Yo Jong

“Kim Yo Jong is always in the background, kind of lurking in behind her brother somewhere. She’s not important in her own right, but she’s part of this dynastic rule,” Brookings’ Pak said.

  • About 30 years old
  • One of his closest aides
  • Kim Yo Jong first appeared in public at her father’s funeral, at the end of 2011, and is now clearly in charge of promoting her brother’s image.
  • She runs the Workers’ Party propaganda and agitation department — a position that led the U.S. Treasury Department to sanction her by name this year — and has been seen organizing papers and logistics at several marquee events, including a military parade.
  • Recently seen with her brother at the Pyongyang Cosmetics Factory in North Korea last week.
  • She was dressed in the functional black outfit of a Communist Party apparatchik and carrying a notebook.

Women in North Korea

Women’s status in North Korea varies widely. Under communism, women are more integrated into the workforce than in neighboring South Korea, even serving in the military. And it’s the women who are earning most of the money in North Korea these days.

While their husbands show up for duty at dilapidated state factories or farms to earn pitiful wages, married women go to the burgeoning markets to sell everything from homemade rice cakes to imported rice cookers, often making many times what their husbands earn.

But in other ways, the hierarchical Confucian ideals that have endured for centuries on the Korean Peninsula are still very much in place, with women viewed as second-class citizens whose primary purpose is to raise the next generation of soldiers.

The concept of motherhood is strong in North Korea, with the state often referred to in propaganda as the all-encompassing, caring “motherland.” Kim Jong Il, the second leader of North Korea and father of the current ruler, had a signature song called “No Motherland Without You.”

Other elevated North Korean women

Almost all of the women who are elevated to senior positions in North Korea get there through family relations.

Choe Son Hui: The regime’s top interlocutor with the United States. She’s the daughter of a former prime minister and is thought to have a direct line to Kim.

Kim Jong Suk: The wife of founding president Kim Il Sung and mother of Kim Jong Il. She is revered as an anti-imperialist fighter.

Ko Yong Hui:Kim Jong Il’s second wife and Kim Jong Un’s mother.

Kim Kyong Hui: Kim Jong Il’s sister. Also prominent in the Workers’ Party, serving in a raft of influential positions and previously occupying the politburo seat that her niece, Kim Yo Jong, now holds. She hasn’t been seen in public since Kim Jong Un had her husband — his uncle — executed in 2013 for apparently building up too much of his own power.

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