SEOUL, South Korea – The mystery woman beside young leader Kim Jong Un at recent public events is indeed his wife, North Korea has confirmed, ending weeks of speculation and offering a new contrast between Kim and his intensely private late father and predecessor.
The news about "comrade Ri Sol Ju" was buried Wednesday in a state TV report about Kim's tour of a new amusement park. It was delivered casually by a newscaster who gave no details about Ri, including how long she and Kim have been married.
Kim, who inherited rule of North Korea from his father, Kim Jong Il, seven months ago, has been seen with Ri at a concert, a kindergarten visit and other events recently, but state media did not mention her before now, fueling widespread speculation about her identity.
Analysts said the announcement was a calculated move by Kim and his advisers as they forge the image of the 20-something leader who took power following the December death of Kim Jong Il.
"Kim Jong Un is breaking with his father's secrecy-shrouded leadership," said Lim Eul-chul, a North Korea expert at South Korea's Kyungnam University. "The revelation of his wife is a sign that Kim wants to show a more open leadership."
The couple's public appearances and Wednesday's brief marriage announcement are a striking contrast to Kim Jong Il's style. His 17-year rule was known for its secrecy, and his companions and children were rarely discussed. That includes Kim Jong Un, who was virtually unknown outside North Korea before his formal introduction to the world in late 2010.
North Korean media showed Kim and Ri smiling broadly, Kim leaning slightly toward her, as they inspected the newly opened Rungna People's Pleasure Ground.
The leader and his wife were greeted with loud cheers as they and senior North Korean military and ruling party officials walked the grounds of the park during its opening ceremony, the official Korean Central News Agency reported, visiting a dolphin show, wading pool and mini golf course.
The couple "saw dolphins playing stunts to the tune of joyful music," the dispatch said, and also shook hands with foreign diplomats and officials and their wives.
The new leader's methods are considered more similar to his grandfather, North Korea founder Kim Il Sung, who was often shown alongside his wife, Kim Jong Suk, and with children in his arms.
Ahn Chan-il, a political scientist at the World Institute for North Korea Studies in South Korea, said the marriage revelation suggests Kim is inching toward "more Western-style" leadership; it also helps ordinary North Koreans feel that their new ruler is an average guy, not an eccentric.
There have been other changes during Kim Jong Un's rule, including his promotion of younger officials and, most recently, his surprise dismissal of former military chief Ri Yong Ho, once seen as a key mentor during Kim's rise to power.
Daniel Pinkston, a Seoul-based analyst with the International Crisis Group, played down the possibility that recent signs of Western influence in North Korea mean real reform is coming soon.
Still, he said that Kim Jong Un's decision to publicize the woman's presence shows a leadership quality distinct from his guarded father. Marriage, Pinkston said, would ease worries among Kim's people and the much older officials serving under him "about the youth question."
South Koreans have closely followed the bits and pieces North Korea has released about Kim Jong Un and his companion, including their attendance at a concert where Mickey Mouse and other Disney characters performed, at a memorial for Kim Il Sung and at inspections of various North Korean sites.
The reports on those earlier events never identified her, though there was speculation that she was North Korea's first lady because of her poised demeanor and her habit of standing near Kim and apart from other officials.
The speculation about Kim Jong Un's private life has coincided with high tension on the Korean Peninsula following a North Korean long-range rocket launch in April and repeated threats by Pyongyang to attack the South.
A push by the United States and its allies for North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program is stalled. North Korea, meanwhile, struggles to feed its people. A recent U.N. report said two-thirds of its 24 million people face chronic food shortages, and access to clean water, regular electricity and medicine is still remote for most of those living in the underdeveloped countryside. A U.S.-based rights group also estimates tens of thousands of prisoners remain held in Soviet-style penal camps.