Ri Sol-ju, Conspicuous Wealth, and the “Military Wife” Type in the DPRK

By | December 12, 2012 | No Comments

A signal from 1970s, transmitted via digital technology in Beijing, April 2012 -- Image and story via China Radio International

Pointing the Economically Useless Man to the Future  – Image via China Radio International

One Korean phrase (사자성어) used to describe the ideal wife from both a male and female perspective is hyunmoyangcho (현모양처), which translated means “good wife and wise mother.” The phrase became quite popular in the nationalist discourse of the colonial period, and, though its use is declining in esteem and frequency as the definition of the modern woman undergoes fundamental changes, is nonetheless reflective of how society generally perceives the role of women even today. [1] In North Korea, a country founded upon part Marxist, part hyper-nationalist ideology, the ideal woman has until now been both a loving mother and “a militant for the revolution.”  However, with the emergence of Ri Sol-ju onto public scene, questions have arisen regarding gender, class, and the “military wife” type in the DPRK. In this essay, Adam Cathcart and Darcie Draudt address gender and class norms in the context of Ri Sol-ju’s very conspicuous public appearances. – Steven Denney, Managing Editor

Ri Sol-ju, Conspicuous Wealth, and the “Military Wife” Type in the DPRK

by Adam Cathcart and Darcie Draudt

Quite a few women think a life of idleness is good, they hold labour in contempt, and envy the rich, they are reluctant to undertake social work and have no national pride. – Kim Il Sung [2]

When it comes to gender and class norms in the DPRK, few demographic categories are as fraught as that of the upwardly-mobile woman. Up until now, the model North Korean woman has typically been a member of a mass organization, who is both a loving mother and, eventually, a militant for the revolution.  It is no mistake, therefore, that images in North Korean opera and official culture frequently set upon the landlord’s wife as a forceful point of critique.

The emergence of what we can only assume is a paragon of a nouveau riche woman, Ri Sol-ju –by the side of the Respected Leader, no less—brings some of these models into question. Her husband is undoubtedly seen to be leading the revolution and modelling modern behavior, and she plays a similar role.

Notwithstanding reports from inside North Korea indicate some ambivalence among DPRK elites about how Ri has been portrayed, she remains very much a point of conversation even as the backstage chatter about her role continues.

Ri Sol-ju is implicitly at the center of the discourse, but what about women like her?  Which social class, or type, is she intended to represent?

Ri began her public life (as a spouse) as a consumer of entertainment – Stalin meets Disney — and before long was posited at the apex of North Korea’s escalating hierarchy of luxury consumption.

At the same time, we should not assume that she is only a symbol of the nouveau riche, or, if one prefers, the wealth of the princeling class which she presumably entered by way of marriage.

In fact, Ri also serves the role of a military spouse, now that her husband has been promoted to General, dashing over the waves to inspect a remote island or what have you. Her “work” is that of the supporter of the Songun policy—she comforts military families and attends on-site inspections with her husband.

Since her unveiling in summer  2012, Ri has been present at a handful of site inspections which have had a military or quasi-military component. These figures prompt questions:

What kind of new discourse is the state spinning around military wives and Party wives in particular?

How are these women elevating to a higher status in the DPRK?

Is praise for the selflessness of such women simply acknowledging a status that has long existed?

What kind of problems or social fissures might the state’s propaganda praising these relatively privileged women bring to light?

The DPRK itself is clearly aware of the emergence oflass tensions surrounding the wives of Party members and military officers or generals. As this television report from a flooded area in August testifies, well-heeled wives of military men are also pitching in to keep the nation strong. But note the massive gulf that resides between these women and the shirtless, scrawny soldiers behind them. The watches, the hats, the nice blouses — and probably the Toyota 4-Runners or Land Rovers that brought them to the site of the photo-op — all testify to some very strong class distinctions in the DPRK. (The film also shows how the Army is trying to appear benevolent and munificent when in fact it is often the agent of confiscation from DPRK peasants.)

Perhaps it is not undernourished KPA privates that the regime needs to worry about.  But women, on the other hand, could become a more vocal dissenting groups.  As Haggard and Noland recently argued in an extensive working paper published this past June, North Korean women “have been disproportionately involved in marketization that the state has sought to limit, control, and even criminalize.”   Little wonder the regime prefers to see them en masse as mourners instead.

Writing in The Guardian, Tania Branigan interviews North Korean women in Yanji to discover that in North Korea, men are often considered economically as superfluous as “lightbulbs during the day.”  One of the women interviewed is making 100,000 won (NKW) in a good month, and breaking her back to do it. Such a person could surely grow resentful of her much wealthier fellow women compatriots, could she not? But in keeping with the generally depoliticized views of North Korean refugees living in China, none interviewed by The Guardian voiced more than a weary and general resentment at the regime, and would hardly attack Kim Jong Un or his wife directly. Recent interviews of North Koreans by Louisa Lim (NPR) in the border city of Dandong follow the same grim — but hardly revolutionary — lines.

Sources from Open Radio NK and The Daily Telegraph have, however, asserted a growing resentment from North Korean people at the lifestyle of Ri Sol-ju, particularly her Christian Dior handbag.  When one of us showed the picture of Ri Sol-ju with her handbag to a group of North Korean waitresses in Shenyang, they tore it away and had a great debate amongst themselves with it (an encounter described at length in an earlier essay).  As with refugee women struggling to make a living in the borderlands, there is not an absolutely crystalline sense of how Ri ought to be viewed here: is she a model to be emulated in the new times, or a jealous throwback to the social stultification and overt wealth of the feudal era? It’s not the ancien regime yet.

Kim Jong-un's mother, Go Young-hee, also brought black clutch purses along to on-site inspections with her husband | Image via DailyNK video footage obtained from DPRK, uploaded by StimmeKoreas

Kim Jong-un’s mother, Go Young-hee, also brought black clutch purses along to on-site inspections with her husband | Image via StimmeKoreas

Rising and Visible Consumption Patterns |  As the Associated Press bureau chief in Pyongyang has noted, women are indeed on the cutting edge of patterns of consumption in the DPRK.  However, American reporters and analysts are hardly the only observers of this trend.  Reportage being published in Chinese also includes insights.

In a recent visit by a Chinese reporter to Sinuiju, Mr. Park, a 45-year old male guide, gives a happy lecture to a Chinese tour group, touching on gender relations and prosperity in the DPRK:

In North Korea [, he says], a man can get a wife for free.  The state gives you an apartment, average 50-60 square meters, you don’t have to worry about a dowry from the woman’s family; the state also gives you grain and food, 3 kg per month of pork. Are you guys jealous?

The Chinese laugh, but Park is serious.  The reporter then sidles over to Mr. Park’s intern, a 23-year old female guide, noticing that she is wearing a shirt with some very nice embroidery on the shoulders.  Picking up on Park’s assertion of a worry-free existence thanks to state generosity, the reporter plays into the rhetoric:

“Did your country give that shirt to you?” he asks.

“I bought it myself,” she says proudly.

“How much does it cost in North Korea?”

She just smiles; it’s probably imported, and worth more than her official salary.

Based on these sorts of anecdotes—the tour guide’s blouse, city women in civilian clothing, red lips in Kaesong (see here), and the undulating high-heeled mourners in a winter funeral in Pyongyang —we see glimpses of a North Korean variety of conspicuous consumption that clearly contrasts with the images of the military garb-clad women singing to commemorate Party feats.

When talking about clothing as it relates to gender and public ideals, it is more than the performance of ideal womanhood for the Party involved in the wearing of clothes, and the sartorial choices made (either by the wearer or on behalf of her). Fashion is also an issue of consumption, and choices of consumption, practically speaking, depend not only on social norms or political prescription, but also relate to issues of both practicality and purchasing power.

Inevitably, one must ask the question of class envy. Is North Korea stronger because some people are getting rich, or does the obvious growth in wealth of a select few tear at the fabric of North Korea’s already frayed social compact?


[1] The phrase’s usage, though decreasing in use as the definition of “the modern woman” undergoes fundamental changes, is reflective of how society perceives the role. As professor Hyaeweol Choi discusses in her book Gender and Mission Encounters in Korea: New Women, Old Ways, the “modern woman” during the colonial period was idealized as one who filled a vital role as the household caretaker, an effort undertaken for the good of the state. The women kept the house in order while the men carried out their stately duties and the sons prepared for the time when they would take over the duties of their fathers.

[2] Kim Il Sung, “The Present Internal and International Situation and the Tasks of Women: Lecture to Women Work Officials in Pyongyang,” October 25, 1945, Works, Vol. 1, June 1930 – December 1945, (Pyongyang: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1980), p.330.

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