WELCOME, MADAME KIM! PLEASE, BE CAREFULPosted by Evan Osnos
July 27, 2012
Rarely has a wedding announcement made for so much shtick. Comedy writer Chase Mitchell: “Kim Jong-Un proposed by getting down on one knee and saying ‘You will marry me.’ ” Conan O’Brien: “It’s reported that Kim Jong-un got married. He’s registered at the local, ‘Bed, Bath and Other Things They Don’t Have in North Korea.’ ” And the (fake and profane) Twitter feed ostensibly from Betty White: “Kim Jong Un is married. Why are the good ones always taken?” (Best of breed? Andy Borowitz’s take on the nuptials.)
By some measures, Ri Sol-ju might seem to be having a great week. When North Korean television announced Wednesday that the nation’s precocious dictator, Kim Jong-un, is married to a woman named Ri Sol-ju (for how long, we don’t know), it put to rest weeks of speculation about the primly elegant, short-haired, high-heeled personage pictured beside Kim on his recent tours of looking at things and clapping for himself, including at a kindergarten and an amusement park. Ri, or Madame Kim, as we might come to know her, might take pride in knowing she was chosen from all others in a nation where, historically, the decider has done a lot of such choosing. Little is known about Ri, other than she is believed to be a singer in her late twenties who has appeared in performances for national audiences. She may have studied in China, and visited South Korea as part of a cheering squad at an athletic competition—which, if true, would mean that she brings some sense of life outside, to build on her husband’s experience as a student in Switzerland. In particular, news of their marriage should put to rest the theory that Kim may be smarting over his late father’s order to end an affair with Hyon Song-wol, a former vocalist of the Bochonbo Electronic Music Band, who was best known for her song “Excellent Horse-like Lady.” Ri can, for the moment, look forward to a life of as much privilege as her homeland can muster.
To Korea-watchers, the revelation of the marriage has potential political import: Since his father never allowed discussion of his wives and mistresses, the decision to reveal a First Lady in the national narrative extends a wave of intriguingly wacky indications of openness in North Korea, following the death of Kim Jong-il, in December, including plans to allow North Korean workers to spend time in China, and a recent concert that featured previously taboo Disney characters and an electric-violin rendition of the theme song to “Rocky.” (When they play the anti-Communist theme from “Rocky IV,” we will know the end of the regime is near.)
But Madame Kim need not look far for reasons to reconsider the blessings in marrying the mob. Just over the border in China, state media announced Thursday that Chinese officials have indicted Gu Kailai, the wife of the purged Chinese politician Bo Xilai, on the charge of “intentional homicide.” She and a member of their household staff named Zhang Xiaojun are accused of killing the British businessman Neil Heywood in a dispute over “economic interests,” as Xinhua puts it. Bo himself was not mentioned, suggesting that the Party may have decided to limit the damage by keeping him out of the intrigue as much as possible.
In a twist, the announcement said that Gu had been moved to act—the alleged deed was a poisoning, with a cyanide-laced drink at a tacky hotel in the mountains—because she believed Heywood had threatened her son’s safety. That suggests that whatever details are still to emerge in the case may bring further attention to that son, Bo Guagua, a graduate of Oxford and Harvard who had previously sought to play down suggestions of family financial impropriety by vigorously disputing reports that he drove a red Ferrari. (He has been silent, however, on police documents in Massachusetts that indicate he drove a Porsche.)
As tempting as it to believe the salacious details about Gu as the alleged assassin, it is worth remembering that very little evidence has been produced to fortify the accusations—and don’t count on more becoming public any time soon. The trial will almost certainly be closed to the public, and details that embarrass the Party will be shielded from view. Moreover, Chinese history is replete with examples when it has proved most convenient to blame the missus, a pattern that extends from Empress dowager Cixi, in the late Qing Dynasty, to Madame Chiang Kai-shek and, later, Jiang Qing (also known as Madame Mao, who was jailed as a member of the “gang of four” blamed for the Cultural Revolution). Writing last month, before Gu was charged and before anyone had ever heard of Ri, Paul French offered a word of warning to those who might be quick to pin the Bo saga on his wife:
Ultimately, dragon ladies are sideshows, part of the sleight of hand to deflect from the real action. Demonizing Cixi allowed the state to avoid picking at the rot that ran through the Qing court; focusing on Madame Chiang’s legs and looted wealth distracted from the failures of the war against Japan; the obsession with Madame Mao’s power plays misdirected the blame due her husband, the real architect of the chaos.
In each case, as in the story of Gu Kailai, these women were made to bear the blame for mistakes by the authoritarian-minded men in their midst. It’s hard to know if the same pattern exists in North Korea, because Kim Jong-il hid his wives and mistresses. As Madame Kim settles into her new life, she may want to be mindful of history.
Photograph by Korean Central News Agency via Korea News Service/AP.