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Tokyo - North Korean state media disclosed Wednesday that leader Kim Jong Un is married, a startling announcement in a country that has long kept its first ladies nearly invisible.
The revelation ends weeks of speculation about the identity of a slender woman with a stylish bob who had accompanied Kim during several recent public appearances.
State media identified the woman as Kim's wife, "Comrade Ri Sol Ju." But there was no mention of Ri's age or of how long the couple has been married.
The emergence of a first lady ends a four-decade period in which significant others of the ruling Kim family were kept almost entirely behind the scenes. The North's willingness to give Ri a high profile adds to evidence that Kim, appointed just seven months ago as North Korea's leader, is trying to create a more personable image than that of his dour, reclusive father.
"It seems Kim Jong Un will have a more open attitude compared to his father's generation," Cheong Seong-chang, a North Korea researcher at Seoul's Sejong Institute, wrote in a report after the Wednesday announcement.
Ri appears to be in her late 20s or early 30s. Kim is thought to be in his late 20s.
The North's state media have shown Ri with Kim - either in photographs or on television - four times. The couple attended a concert featuring American cartoon characters. They visited the mausoleum where Kim Il Sung, the young leader's grandfather, lies in state. They also toured a kindergarten, where state-released video showed them whispering to each other and sharing laughs. The latest batch of pictures were released early Wednesday, before the marriage announcement, and showed the couple at an amusement park.
At one point during the kindergarten visit, Kim and Ri simultaneously put their hands atop a schoolgirl's head. Though they were trailed by a group of senior officials, the two stayed close to one another, and Ri often leaned toward Kim. She wore a yellow polka-dotted dress with a white jacket.
Despite official efforts to cultivate a warm image of Kim, the young leader oversees one of the world's most cold-blooded states: The government funnels its money to weapons, provides scant food for its people and punishes those who criticize the status quo.
Kim could still emerge as a reformer, analysts say. But since Kim Jong Il's death in December, there has been no clear evidence of improvements in the country. Instead, Kim has rapidly consolidated his power, assuming a series of supreme positions that place him atop every important military and Workers' Party organ and cracking down on North Koreans who try to flee.
A report on Kim's succession, released Wednesday by the International Crisis Group, described the heir's "stable" rise to power and noted that he could be in power "for decades," in part because of his charismatic personality.
"In the short term, his image is likely welcome in a country where most people are fatigued from mass mobilization campaigns . . . and chronic insecurity," the report said. "Kim projects an image of confidence and hope, but economic recovery requires policy change, and there is no sign the regime intends to vary its economic development strategy."
The differences between father and son, for now, remain more a matter of style.
Kim Jong Il conducted his love life almost entirely out of the public view. According to "Kim Jong Il: North Korea's Dear Leader," a book by Michael Breen, Kim fathered his first child with a movie star, Sung Hae Rim. The two lived in lavish, remote villas and gave their son, Kim Jong Nam, a playroom restocked each year by gift-purchase teams operating overseas. But Kim's relationship with Sung was "the best-kept secret in the country," Breen wrote, and it's unclear whether the two were ever married.
At the wishes of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il later married the daughter of a military officer, Kim Young Sook. He then had at least one more relationship with a Japanese-born Korean, Ko Young Hee, who gave birth to two more children - Kim Jong Chul and Kim Jong Un.