Ri life: The unlikely rise of a style muse in North Korea
The fashion sense of leader Kim Jong-un’s wife plays a subtle role in the nation’s cultural power politics
North Korea is no stranger to making headlines, but the latest is a little different. Ri Sol-ju, the wife of leader Kim Jong-un, is being hailed as a “style muse” by the Korea Herald.
On Friday, the first couples of North and South Korea met at Panmunjeom, the village where the 1953 armistice was signed. Walking hand in hand behind their more sombrely clad husbands, the first ladies showed a united front in pastel outfits.
South Korea’s Kim Jung-sook wore a pale blue duster coat (not dissimilar to one owned by the Duchess of Cambridge), while Ri Sol-ju wore a pale coral dress and matching jacket in a vintage style akin to something Jacqueline Kennedy might have worn in the 1960s.The appearance follows a recent spate of public appearances by Ri Sol-ju, who is believed to be 29 and to have three children with the North Korean leader. She was photographed wearing similar pastel outfits for appearances in Pyongyang and on a visit to Beijing with her husband in March. This month, the title given to her by state media was elevated from “comrade” or “madam” to “respected first lady”, the first time the latter title has been used since 1974.
The combination spells a none-too-subtle play for soft power. Cultural influence is so far one of the few tactics not used by North Korea in its quest to exert its influence on the world, but with Melania Trump in the US, Brigitte Macron in France and Peng Liyuan in China not only bolstering their husbands’ political positions, but also boosting their respective countries’ economies by setting style trends and wearing the countries’ star designers, it seems that Kim Jong-un may have realised the merits of shifting perceptions of the first family.“Ri has become the top fashion inspiration and role model for young North Korean women,” reported the Herald of the Ri effect, which is hardly surprising perhaps in a culture where freedom of fashion expression is hardly a priority. “One North Korean female defector said that whenever Ri comes on television the first thing they see is what Ri is wearing.”
But while Ri’s role as style influencer maybe a rarity in North Korea, she’s not entirely alone – she shares that status with news presenter Ri Chun-hee. Though officially retired, she became the smiling face of the North’s KCTV (Korean Central Television) in the 1970s, and has since returned to broadcast from Pyongyang on the latest nuclear tests – wearing pink, her signature colour. The inference rings clear: how bad can the news really be, when the woman reading it is a kindly grandmother wearing pastels?A pink outfit might not seem radical, but in a sea of military-issue uniforms it’s precisely that – which makes the motives here all the more transparent.
As to whether a fashionable first lady makeover can really improve North Korea’s international relations – that remains to be seen.
© The Daily Telegraph