It’s a big year for North Korea. The country has qualified 22 athletes for the 2018 Winter Olympics in the DPRK enemy territory of Pyeongchang, South Korea– and the world is holding its breath to see how interactions unfold. Also in tow with the athletes? Kim Jong-un’s “Army of Beauties,” a highly competitive cheerleading squad whose female members are selected based on looks and family ranking. It’s also where the dictator met his wife, Ri Sol-ju.
Still wrapping your head around the fact that the DPRK has a cheer squad? So are we. Kim Jong-un is an avid sports lover, and according to a 2018 CNBC article, “[his] love for soccer, basketball and skiing has seen the millennial dictator funnel available state resources into talent recruitment and necessary infrastructure.” That also means cheerleaders. Lots of cheerleaders:
“They look like Koreans from a long time ago,” South Korean Lee Jung Hoon told The Straits Times. The “army” runs strong about 200 red-clad women, all in their 20s. Seeing the team in action is a bit like watching an elaborate chain of dominos fall into place. The timing feels sharper than clock-work. The effect, nothing short of hypnotic.
It’s unclear as to exactly how or when the dictator met Ri Sol-ju, but North Korean state media finally announced her as “His wife, Comrade Ri Sol-ju” in 2012. Romantic, right? In all seriousness, Ri Sol-ju’s role as the dictator’s wife makes her one of the top figures (symbolically, at least) of the powerful regime begun by North Korean founder, Kim Il-sung.
It’s believed that she married Kim Jong-un in 2009, but she wasn’t formally presented for a number of years. Prior to that, media rumours swirled that the young woman was his sister or some kind of pop star. “Many speculated that the young dictator’s wife was pop singer Hyon Song-Wol,” wrote The Daily Beast in 2012, “[who is] known for songs such as Excellent Horse-Like Lady.”
While she wasn’t the Beyoncé of North Korea, the media wasn’t that far from the mark. The “Army of Beauties” Ri Sol-ju performed in is believed to represent the crème de la crème of the North’s upper crust society members, and their positions are highly coveted, as the women are believed to have access to a slightly higher living standard.
North Korea’s social and economic isolation from the rest of the world has made them reliant on “exports of coal, clothing, and shelfish” reported The New York Times this year, “Food in the North is still rationed, with the best goods distributed only to a small group of elites with government connections.”
To put it diplomatically, the dictator’s cheerleaders live under especially strict surveillance and working conditions. We think Ri Sol-ju is in her mid-to-late 20s, and that she was a successful graduate student at Kim Il-sung University. We think she completed a Ph. D in Science, and that her father is a professor. But that’s the thing with North Korea– the facts made available for Western media sources are often speculative.
In truth, Ri Sol-ju remains a bit of a mystery. It’s almost certain her name is a pseudonym. Sometimes, she’ll go unseen for months. Other times, she’ll be spotted at an amusement park, or at a funeral. We think she has two to three children with the dictator– but, again, not certain. The only thing we can be sure of is that the crown jewel of the cheer squad is not falling off Western media’s radar any time soon.
Oh yeah, did we mention there was a Kim Jong-un impersonator at the Games? The Beauties didn’t seem too pleased:
By Mary Frances Knapp, our Californian in Paris & beatnik at heart.