Woody Allen once famously said "90 percent of life is just showing up." In the Kim family's North Korea showing up—or suddenly not—can be a true matter of life or death.
People will be watching today's ceremony on the second anniversary of Kim Jong-il's death to see if two ladies in particular show up—Kim Jong-un's aunt, the estranged spouse of the recently executed Jang Song-thaek—and Kim Jong-un's spouse, Ri Sol-ju about whom some nasty rumors surfaced in the South Korean and Japanese press last summer.
Both were at Kim Jong-il's memorial last year so there is no reason not to expect their appearance again—as long as they remain in the Young General's good graces. Kim Kyung-hui seemed to be savvy enough to have distanced herself from her husband before his fall from grace. Some North Korean defector sources are even reporting that she was actively involved in the purge to get rid of him.
Some attribute her alleged animosity to Jang's reported “womanizing"—although Korean women, South or North, have long put up with such behavior by powerful husbands. Some speculate that their estrangement involved the 2006 suicide of their only child over a romance Kim Kyung-hui opposed, and her fearsome temper is reportedly such that even her brother the Dear Leader reportedly treated her with kid gloves.
But most importantly, as the only surviving child of North Korea's founder, Kim Il-sung, Kim Kyung-hui is the embodiment of the "Baekdu bloodline" (named for the mountain from which Kim Il-sung launched his anti-Japanese guerrilla campaign). Even the violent Kim Jong-un would likely pause before harming a hair on her head.
Ri Sol-ju was a breath of fresh air when she emerged as North Korea's First Lady two years ago. With her background as a professional entertainer, she knows how to please a crowd, whether riding roller coasters with her husband or greeting Disney characters on stage. By contrast, the women in both Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il's lives were neither seen nor heard.
It is the professional entertainer background which not only gives Ms. Ri her charisma but also has caused her problems. Last summer North Korean state security overheard a rival entertainer discussing with members of a musical troupe not only her own promiscuity and involvement in pornography but that of Ms. Ri in the past as well. Ri Sol-ju had her husband round up and shoot the gossipers in short order—she also may have been jealous of Kim Jong-un's reported lingering affection for the other woman.
But the rumors persisted in the overseas Asian press and after presenting her baby daughter to Dennis Rodman on his recent visit to a North Korean pleasure island, Ri has been keeping a low profile. Her appearance at the memorial ceremony would be an indication that her hot-tempered husband has decided to put any alleged youthful indiscretions on his wife's part behind.
Dennis P. Halpin is a former U.S. consul in Busan and adviser on Asian issues to the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He is a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS (Johns Hopkins).