Singing in the summit? Korea's musical first ladies

PHOTO: Reuters

SEOUL - At first glance the two Koreas' first ladies, who are to attend a banquet Friday (April 27) following a historic summit between their husbands, would appear to have little in common.

One is in her 20s from the isolated North and the other is in her 60s from the capitalist South, but they share a passion for music - both Ri Sol Ju and Kim Jung Sook were professional singers before their marriages.

Ri, the wife of the North's leader Kim Jong Un, has gained a growing political profile, accompanying Kim to key events at home and abroad including last month's summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping - whose wife Peng Liyuan is also a former singer.

Believed to be in her late 20s and having three children with Kim, Ri was already a public figure in her own right as a singer for the Unhasu band - an elite troupe whose members are handpicked by the state based on their talent, looks and loyalty to the regime.

The couple tied the knot in 2009, but Ri was only publicly identified as Kim's wife in 2012 after the young, inexperienced leader inherited power from his father the previous year.

Ri quickly became one of the most high-profile women in the isolated country, joining her husband on numerous "field guidance trips" and for meetings with foreign dignitaries, often dressing in luxury brands and once sporting a Christian Dior handbag.

Her public presence was a departure from precedent in the North, where the wives of the previous two leaders - Kim's father and grandfather - rarely made public appearances, with details about their lives mostly kept secret.

Ri was accorded the description of "respected First Lady" in the North's state media earlier this month - the first time the title had been used in the deeply patriarchal country for more than 40 years.

It came as she made her first solo public appearance, with analysts saying the moves were an effort to paint the North as a "normal state" ahead of Kim's summits with Moon and US President Donald Trump.

Kim Jong-un first N Korean leader to cross border into South since war

  • South Korean President Moon Jae-in, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Kim's wife Ri Sol Ju and Moon's wife Kim Jung-sook attend a farewell ceremony at the truce village of Panmunjom inside the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, South Korea, April 27, 2018.
  • North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un (2nd L) and his wife Ri Sol Ju (L) toast with South Korea's President Moon Jae-in (2nd R) and his wife Kim Jung-sook (R) during the official dinner at the end of their historic summit at the truce village of Panmunjom on April 27, 2018.
  • The leaders of North and South Korea agreed Friday to pursue a permanent peace and the complete denuclearisation of the divided peninsula, as they embraced after a historic summit laden with symbolism.
  • The leaders of North and South Korea agreed Friday to pursue a permanent peace and the complete denuclearisation of the divided peninsula, as they embraced after a historic summit laden with symbolism.
  • Upon signing the document, the two leaders shared a warm embrace, the culmination of a summit filled with smiles and displays of friendship in front of the world’s media.
  • Upon signing the document, the two leaders shared a warm embrace, the culmination of a summit filled with smiles and displays of friendship in front of the world’s media.
  • Among the many spectacles Friday's inter-Korean summit offered was the two Korea's first ladies' first-ever meeting with one another, and the seemingly instant bond they formed.
  • The two were holding hands as they left the Peace House after the dinner, and did not let go of each other's hands until they reached an outdoor property where they watched a special performance celebrating the historic summit together.
  • And the two first ladies, in spite of seeing each other for the first time, seemed to have bonded well after the spring-themed banquet event.
  • And the two first ladies, in spite of seeing each other for the first time, seemed to have bonded well after the spring-themed banquet event.
  • Kim, who is some 30 years Ri's senior, extended a warm welcome and took her to the Peace House, where the summit had been taking place since earlier in the day.
  • In the afternoon, they planted a memorial tree and watered it with water from rivers in the South and North, before walking into a small glen along the border and across the blue footbridge for their private tete-a-tete as the sun set.
  • Moon would visit Pyongyang in “the fall”, the two leaders said, also agreeing to hold “regular meetings and direct telephone conversations”.
  • After the summit, he pledged that the two Koreas will ensure they did not “repeat the unfortunate history in which past inter-Korea agreements... fizzled out after beginning”.
  • The two previous Korean summits in 2000 and 2007, both of them in Pyongyang, also ended with displays of affection and similar pledges, but the agreements ultimately came to naught.
  • North Korean leader Kim Jong Un crossed the border into South Korea for the first time on Friday. The two leaders were handed flowers by a South Korean boy and girl, residents of a village situated in the demilitarised zone.
  • Kim was greeted by the South’s president, Moon Jae-in ahead of the two Koreas’ first summit in more than a decade.
  • Kim said he felt a “swirl of emotion” as he walked the short distance to the border, wondering “why it took so long”, he told Moon later, at the beginning of their meeting.
  • The two leaders smiled and shook hands after which Kim Jong Un gestured to Moon they cross over to North Korea briefly, which they did for a few steps, then returned to the South, holding hands.
  • The two leaders smiled and shook hands after which Kim Jong Un gestured to Moon they cross over to North Korea briefly, which they did for a few steps, then returned to the South, holding hands.
  • A new period in inter-Korean history was beginning, Kim Jong Un said Friday at the opening of a summit with the South.
  • “I came here determined to send a starting signal at the threshold of a new history,” he told his host Moon Jae-in in the Demilitarized Zone, promising a “frank, serious and honest mindset”.
  • Kim wore glasses and his trademark black Mao suit, while the rest of the North Korean delegation appeared in military uniforms or Western attire.
  • Kim stopped to sign a guest book in the South’s Peace House before the two leaders met for a private discussion.
  • His message read: ""A new history begins now. At the starting point of history and the era of peace."
  • Kim escorted by his bodyguards as he makes his way to the Military Demarcation Line.
  • The two men went back to their separate sides for lunch, Kim driven in a black limousine and escorted by a dozen bodyguards in dark suits and ties jogging alongside the vehicle.
  • North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and the South’s President Moon Jae-in sat down at an oval table to begin their inter-Korean summit Friday, television footage showed.
  • Both leaders viewing the painting of Bukhansan at the Peace House
  • Walking on a red carpet rolled out for the two heads of state, the pair were met by a South Korean honour guard in historical costumes and playing traditional music.
  • The two are expected to talk denuclearisation and exchanges between the Koreas and also will plant a memorial tree at the border truce village of Panmunjom.

GANGNAM STYLE

Ri will dine with her Southern counterpart Kim Jung Sook, the wife of South Korean President Moon Jae In.

In the Korean writing system, Kim's name is identical to that of Kim Jong Un's grandmother Kim Jong Suk.

The 63-year-old is also a professionally trained vocalist who was once a member of the Seoul city choir before becoming a housewife shortly after marriage and having two children.

As Moon gained political prominence, Kim endeared herself to the public with her outgoing and cheerful personality - in contrast to her husband, who is often described as too quiet and bland.

She has showed off her singing skills at public events and was seen performing Psy's horse-riding Gangnam Style dance on a visit to the Philippines last year - a break from most previous first ladies who remained quiet and coy next to their husbands.

The couple met at a university in Seoul where Kim was studying classical singing and law student Moon was a pro-democracy activist opposing the then military dictatorship.

Moon says they fell in love when she took care of him after he was left unconscious by a police tear gas canister fired during a campus pro-democracy rally, and she supported him while he served a prison term for his activism.

It was Kim who proposed to Moon - a rarity in the conservative South - in defiance of opposition from her parents, who were unimpressed by his humble background as the son of poor North Korean refugees.

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