You may see North Korea’s Kim Jong Un everywhere on the news, but someone special in his life is often missing from the limelight. Ri Sol Ju is the country’s first lady, making her somewhat of a public figure by default. But little is known about her. Details about her family, her life before marriage, and even her real name are all hotly debated.
Let’s look at what we know (or think we know) about Ri and her ultra-secretive marriage to Kim Jong Un (No. 9 discusses who set them up). But first, let’s learn about the strict wedding traditions even Kim and Ri had to follow.
1. Every North Korean, including Kim and Ri, must follow these rigid wedding guidelines
We know little about Kim and Ri’s secretive wedding, but we’re sure it wasn’t like wedding receptions in the U.S. The North Korean government forbids couples from marrying on April 15 and February 16, the birthdays of Kim’s father, Kim Il-sung, and grandfather, Kim Jong-il.
The Guardian notes it’s not your special day, as it’s often overseen by the government. Newlyweds bring flowers to the statue of Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s supreme leader. Their dress is traditional, the couple typically takes photos in front of the statue as a sign of respect, and there’s absolutely no such thing as a honeymoon.
Next: You can marry in North Korea — but you can’t date.
2. If Kim and Ri dated or were lovers, no one knew it.
When Ri first appeared, some speculated she and Kim were dating or secret lovers gone public. However, Andrei Lankov, author of many books on North Korea, told CNN the “public appearance of a leader’s girlfriend or lover would be unthinkable.” Even mentioning Ri, let alone her public appearances, is unusual compared to Kim’s predecessors.
The existence of his grandfather’s first wife was “never even hinted at,” says Lankov. Kim’s dad never mentioned his first wife until her death. His second wife was mentioned in passing 15 years after they married.
Next: Could Kim and Ri have had a relationship in the past?
3. There’s a theory she’s actually a singer Kim Jong Un was involved with previously
Let’s go back to before Ri and Kim met — back when Kim was in school and dating a singer named Hyon Song-Wol. The New York Post explains Kim’s father didn’t like Hyon, and he made the two stop dating. But some speculate that Ri could actually be Hyon, and she just changed her name so the public would never know.
Next: North Korea isn’t too pleased with Ri’s past.
4. North Korean officials tried to erase her past as a performer
There’s conflicting information about Ri’s past, but Business Insider says she was a singer and performer. The publication also notes North Korean authorities tried to cover up her pop star past. In 2012, they attempted to destroy all the CDs and recordings of when she was a member of the Unhasu Orchestra.
Next: Her disappearances inspire many theories.
5. She is rarely seen in public
Now you see her, now you don’t. This seems to be a popular trick with Ri, as she’ll go months without appearing in public. Heavy.com reports her first disappearing act happened in 2012, when people theorized she was either dead or pregnant. She returned a few months later, but continues to escape the public eye from time to time.
Next: Her disappearances coincide with other notable events.
6. It’s believed the couple has three children
Weirdly enough, Kim and Ri’s kids aren’t common knowledge. The Independent says each time Ri disappeared from public view for long periods of time, South Korea’s National Intelligence Service says she gave birth. This means they have three children — one in 2010, 2013, and the end of 2016. Dennis Rodman, the basketball star who occasionally visits the family, has said the second child is a girl.
Next: What if the reason she disappears is more sinister?
7. Aside from pregnancy, there are other rumors as to why Ri disappears
Ri disappearing from time to time makes sense if she’s pregnant — but what if it’s for other reasons altogether? International Business Times throws a few ideas out there, like Kim may be concerned for his wife’s well-being due to increasing tensions in North Korea. Or, Kim himself might show his ruthless streak to his wife if she behaves in a way he doesn’t like, which also explain why she’s out of the public eye.
Next: There’s plenty of speculation about the third child.
8. Some believe Ri was pressured into having a third child
Ri and Kim have three children, but is this what Ri really wanted? UPI reports it’s fairly rare for a North Korean woman to give birth to more than two children. Some speculate Ri’s first two children are girls. This means she may have felt pressure from the regime to have a boy, who will eventually become the fourth-generation ruler of North Korea.
Next: This unlikely American friend of Kim’s visits the couple often.
9. Dennis Rodman says Kim is a really great dad
You probably don’t think of Kim Jong Un as particularly warm or inviting, but former NBA player Dennis Rodman says we just don’t know Kim on a personal level. According to Vanity Fair, Rodman and Kim are great friends who sing karaoke and ride horses together. And The Guardian reports Rodman called Kim an “awesome guy” and “great dad” after visiting Kim and his wife following the birth of their daughter.
Next: Who really arranged the marriage?
10. The late Kim Jong Il arranged his son and Ri’s marriage
Details about the marriage ceremony are largely unknown, but analyst Cheong Seong-Chang told a South Korean newspaper he believes Kim Jong Un and Ri Sol Ju married in 2009, BBC News reports. Cheong also believes Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, arranged the marriage. And he did this in quite a hurry after his stroke in 2008.
Next: Here’s what we know about Ri’s family.
11. Ri’s family may be from the political elite
A few years ago, the Daily Beast reported Ri’s family was considered to be among the elite, as her father was a professor and her mother led a gynecological unit at a hospital. But of course, this conflicts with what The New York Post said about her being a pop star, or possibly part of a cheerleading squad before she met Kim. Others even posit she was born into an average family.
Next: The world may be totally incorrect about her basic info.
12. Her age and name have never been confirmed
Yes, this is about as strange as it gets. Though North Koreans (and the rest of the world, for that matter) are pretty sure Ri Sol Ju is in her 30s, The New York Post comments that it’s never been confirmed by the regime. This also stands true for her name. Though she’s referred to worldwide as Ri Sol Ju, there’s suspicion this name may actually be a pseudonym to make her even more of a mystery to the public.
Next: Kim keeps women around for certain reasons.
13. Ri may exist to show a specific side of her husband
Business Insider’s Anna Fifield notes two special women exist in Kim’s life. His wife Ri dresses in more feminine, high-fashion outfits, and Kim’s sister Kim Yo Jung wear conservative, functional attire indicative of the Communist Party.
Fifield says, “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.” When Kim Jong Un needs to appear softer, modern, and young, Ri makes her appearance. But his sister is much more of a leader, as he’s elevated her higher within the ruling Workers’ Party.
Next: This is how the public feels about her expensive handbags.
14. Ri is known (and hated) for her high-fashion choices
When you’re part of the North Korean elite, you’d have a lavish lifestyle, right? Not everyone is happy with Ri’s high-fashion choices, says UPI. According to reporters in the country, the citizens are angry with Ri’s expensive French purses and outfits because it shows the gigantic wealth gap between the elite and the people.
The people also weren’t impressed when the state media announced her as “Respectable Comrade Ri Sol Ju.” As one male worker in the country said, “What did she do to earn such praise?”
Next: Ri might be more educated than you think.
15. Ri is supposedly pursuing a Ph.D. (or perhaps already has one)
Little is known and confirmed about Ri’s background and education. But back in 2012 the Daily Beast said Ri was a graduate student at Kim Il-sung University, where she pursued a master’s degree in some kind of science. If this is true, then Ri makes for an interesting public figure seeing as she also supposedly studied singing in China. Perhaps she wears all hats, or maybe someone speculated wrong … We’re not sure.
Next: Some reports say this is actually what happened to Kim’s ex-girlfriend.
16. Some reports say Kim’s previous girlfriend was executed
Here’s where things get really strange: In 2013, a South Korean newspaper stated Hyon, Kim’s previous girlfriend, was executed in North Korea by machine gunfire for violating laws on pornography, The Telegraph says. She wasn’t the only one, either. Twelve singers, dancers, and musicians were arrested and killed.
Other theories suggest Kim’s wife Ri didn’t like how much Hyon was in the limelight because of her musical talent, which also could have led to her death.
It seems the controversy and injustice in the country aren’t enough to sway Rodman away from that friendship, but it does give the U.S. an inside scoop on what’s going on.
Next: Ri has strayed from North Korea a few times in the past.
17. Ri visited South Korea in 2005 — something few North Koreans ever do
Visiting another country is a luxury, and not everyone around the world can do it. When it comes to North Korea, it’s particularly difficult to leave even for a short period of time. You need explicit permission from the regime.
BBC News reports Ri was probably one of the lucky few to leave her country and visit South Korea back in 2005. She reportedly did this during a trip with a cheerleading team for the Asian Athletics Championships. There’s also speculation she studied singing in China, as noted before.
Next: A North Korean wedding is unlike anything you’ve ever seen.
18. Their wedding probably wasn’t like most others
You have ideas of what a wedding is like — and they’re nothing similar to what goes on in North Korea.
For elite couples, like Kim and Ri, the number of wedding guests indicates their social standing, so wealthy families invite as many guests as they can. They also select a wedding location like a ballroom or lounge as opposed to “average” North Korean couples who usually wed in a sparse ceremony at the bride’s home.
Traditional Korean wedding ceremonies involve placing a live hen and rooster wrapped in red and blue cloth at the altar. Guest put red chili into the rooster’s beak and flowers and dates into the hen’s beak.
Additional reporting by Ali Harrison.