Ri Sol-ju Goes Viral: What Social Media Reveal about the DPRK’s First Lady

By | March 06, 2013 | No Comments

As the recent trip by Kim Jong-un’s new “friend for life” Dennis Rodman affirms, Ri Sol-ju, the DPRK’s fashionable purse-carrying First Lady, not only acts as the Respected Leader’s better half and walking mate, but also as a focus of media attention. As reported by KCNA, “Rodman thought it was of the highest honor to be the first American to meet the honorable Kim Jong-un and his wife Ri Sol-ju” (경애하는 김정은 원수님과 리설주부인을 미국인으로서 처음으로 만나뵈온것을 최상의 영광으로 생각한다”). Though certainly an object of media and popular attention inside North Korea, Ri Sol-ju has garnered not a small amount of attention outside her home country as well. In this piece, SinoNK’s Gender Analyst Darcie Draudt examines the meanings behind the way Ri Sol-ju is perceived in the South Korean and English media. – Steven Denney, Managing Editor

Ri Sol-ju Goes Viral: What Social Media Reveal about the DPRK’s First Lady

by Darcie Draudt

Over the past six months or so, international English-language news media outlets addressing the question of “Who is Kim Jong-un’s wife, Ri Sol-ju?” have only provided more fodder for the construction of Ri Sol-ju into a curious international celebrity. Since her confirmation as the DPRK leader’s wife in late July 2012, major news sources have continued to turn out speculation about the woman who is seen as an elusive East Asian celebrity. As The Guardian noted in an October 30, 2012, piece for its regular “Passnotes: A Humorous Q&A About a News Issue of the Day:”

How so? Well she’s married to the pudgy heart-throb dynast Kim Jong-un, North Korea‘s new leader.

Married? You mean I can’t have him to myself? I’m afraid not. She was publicly presented as his wife in July before an audience of high-ranking party officials and members of the military and secret police – “loudly shouting ‘Hurrah!'” according to state media.

It’s every young girl’s dream. I’m sure it is, in North Korea.

The lightweight piece goes on to astutely appraise her asan important symbol, though. Kim Jong-il never made public appearances with his wives, but now his son seems to be moving towards a softer, more contemporary style of paranoid tyranny,” and finally deems her “ the communist Kate Middleton,” another woman known for little other than her station as a young political wife.

Some activists, journalists and critics allege that Ri Sol-ju is a red herring to distract from the realities of life for a majority of North Koreans, a diversion many outlets have run with, both English news outlets and South Korean ones. She now mingles with international celebrities: U.S. b-baller Dennis Rodman was photographed with her during his widely publicized visit to the DPRK last week.

The Social Network | While international media coverage might have you seeing her as a mysterious celebrity heralding a more cheerful, modern DPRK, in South Korea the public views Ri with a much more skeptical eye. Popular discourse here is much more controversial, grounded in social mores of what it means to be an ideal woman and wife based on a shared cultural history of familism.

Even more than news outlet coverage, aided by the ease of self-publishing through social media, many South Korean netizens have latched onto speculating about her identity or, in the absence of verifiable information, creating one for her. Out of 83 million fake Facebook accounts, 11 profiles are under the name Ri Sol-ju (리설주). An article in Maeil Business Newspaper (매일경제), the main South Korean business daily, selects the key attributes of these profile pages to highlight:

These Facebook pages have various pictures of Ri Sol-ju uploaded, and include information such as “Current Residence: Pyongyang,” “Studied at Kim Il-sung University,” “Married,” and “Hamkyong Province Ancestry” (“평양직할시 거주,” “김일성종합대학에서 공부,” “기혼,” “함경도 출신”).

In some updates, she is tagged with First Chairman of the National Defense Commission (북한국방위원회 제1위원장) Kim Jong-un and former KPA Chief-of-Staff Ri Yong-ho among others, but otherwise there are no special updates.

Like his wife, Kim Jong-un also has myriad fake Facebook accounts, drawing comments and criticisms from global users. There is plenty of media speculation over whether one of these profile pages is authentic, but the fact perhaps may be corroborated by the Ireland-based web analytics company StarCounter, which said that Facebook activity using the IP address assigned to North Korea is ongoing. The Maeil Business Daily article interviewed Korean Friendship Association (KFA) President Alejandro Cao de Benós, who claims to manage the page.

[de Benós said the KFA] “is managing the Facebook account in order to confront most media’s propaganda and ignorance about North Korea.” He also said it “informs the entire world about the achievements and thought of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.”

To the question of seeing Kim Jong-un’s own Facebook page, de Benós claims, “He [Kim Jong-un] not only visits the page but also regularly communicates with us.”

While there does indeed exist an official Facebook page for Kim Jong-un, there is little evidence to claim the veracity of Ri Sol-ju’s pages. Indeed, one of the fan pages goes so far as to list her as a “fictional character.” Whether that is a claim about her very existence or the authenticity of the page itself, she remains an image rather than real person in the public.

Most of the fake Facebook profiles for Ri Sol-ju include her residence as Pyongyang and set her relationship status as married (top left). Information on the fan pages is a little more sparse, designates her as a “fictional character” (bottom left) or “political figure.” The comment on her profile photo, taken from a visit to the 2005 Asian Games in Incheon (right) says, “Beautiful!”

Most of the fake Facebook profiles for Ri Sol-ju include her residence as Pyongyang and set her relationship status as married (top left). Information on the fan pages is a little more sparse, designates her as a “fictional character” (bottom left) or “political figure.” The comment on her profile photo, taken from a visit to the 2005 Asian Games in Incheon (right) says, “Beautiful!”

Trending on Twitter | In addition to her public construction as a character on Facebook, Ri Sol-ju has been a trending topic in Korean-language activity on Twitter, the contents of which are largely based on gossip. Using results provided by the social media analysis service Pulse K (펄스K), the South Korean PR firm Medicom (미디컴) analyzed the 22-day period from July 25, 2012, when Ri Sol-ju was first identified as Kim Jong-un’s wife, until Aug. 15, 2012. The total number of tweets during this period skyrocketed to 21,329. During the period of analysis, the day that saw the most tweets was July 26, when mention of Ri Sol-ju’s 2005 visit to South Korea and tweets about the picture from that visit reached about 9,000 in one day.

Progression of the buzzword “Ri Solju” on Twitter, 7/1-8/15/2012 | Source: Medicom

Progression of the buzzword “Ri Sol-ju” on Twitter, 7/1-8/15/2012 | Source: Medicom

But the “Ri Sol-ju Effect” impacted more than just tweets about her. According to the PR firm’s analysis, there were about 2,000 more tweets including the words “North Korea” and “Kim Jong-un” on the day she was revealed to be the leader’s wife than on the day of a major announcement by Leader Kim on July 18. On July 18, tweets about North Korea numbered 15,653 and tweets about Kim Jong-un numbered 11,231. On July 26, tweets about North Korea hit 17,004 and tweets about Kim Jong-un reached 13,283.

Progression of the buzzwords “North Korea” (in red) and “Kim Jong-un” (in green) on Twitter, 7/1-8/15/2012 | Source: Medicom

Progression of the buzzwords “North Korea” (in red) and “Kim Jong-un” (in green) on Twitter, 7/1-8/15/2012 | Source: Medicom

Looking at Things | Mention of Ri Sol-ju in the South Korean Twitterverse differs drastically from the tone taken toward her in English-language social media. English-language posts tend to use her to mock the regime, including meme-like “Kim Jong-un looking at things with his wife” photos, or praise of her style, notable for its clean Chanel-like lines that differ drastically from other photos and videos taken of women in Pyongyang.

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In contrast, the South Korean social media activity is much more negative in tone, found Medicom in its analysis:

Gossipy news about Ri Sol-ju, such as her being a “divorcée” and “luxury products,” spread rumors of corruption. Some tweets about Ri Sol-ju during the period of analysis landed in the top 50 most retweeted Korean-language tweets. Tweets alluding to corruption comprised 87.0% of these tweets, those that were neutral were 12.2%, and positive-tone tweets were .8%.

The primary content of retweets skyrocketed, in this order:

  • Criticism of North Korea’s strategy of to improve its image with Ri Sol-ju
  • Criticism of Ri Sol-ju’s divorce and affair with Kim Jong-un
  • Criticism of Kim Jong-un’s involvement with many women
  • Anticipation of an atmosphere of reform and opening through Ri Sol-ju
  • Criticism of Ri Sol-ju’s carrying a luxury handbag

The article cites two of the most popular examples of trending tweets, both of which are based on speculation of her divorce before marrying Kim Jong-un:

@lorlorbach: “Oh—Kim Jong-un’s wife Ri Sol-ju is a divorced woman. Geez (헐). Ri Sol-ju’s background information is recorded on the Chinese search engine Baidu. Using power to make her get divorced, no? I don’t know if she committed adultery and her ex-husband was purged. An affair I can’t understand. Seems like an immoral person.” (retweeted 692 times)

@0998bell: “Ri Sol-ju sudden appearance beside Kim Jong-un is the result of North Korea’s image strategy. Kim Jong-un’s trying to change his image, and in April coerced married woman Ri Sol-ju to live with him without a wedding.” (retweeted 316 times)

Who may create a public image? | As early as 1995 in Space of Indentity: Global Media, Electronic Landscapes and Cultural Boundaries, David Morley and Kevin Robins discuss the powerful role of the global media in the processes of cultural encounters, leading to a media imperialism. “The media,” they write, “now make us all rather like anthropologists, in our own living rooms, surveying the world of all those ‘Others’ who are represented to us on the screen.” (133).

While postcolonial, Said-esque criticisms or feminist readings of the issue are certainly a very important issue that must be addressed elsewhere, for now, the idea of the ability to the entire global audience to analyze a figure in the media is only further complicated now, nearly twenty years after Morley and Robbins wrote their heavily-cited work on the media and post-modern geography.

Since the mid-2000s, the advent of user-generated content or user-created content (UCC) online has changed the way popular media is consumed. Because consumers can now interact with cultural products in new ways—via reporting, critiquing and reforming images, music, videos or texts—consumers play a more active role in what Jenkins describes as “participatory” media products, writes Henry Jenkins. This has led to a convergence so that media production is both a top-down process, and a bottom-up consumer-driven process, Jenkins claims.

With the proliferation of social media and its perceived influence in popular discourse, politicking, and consumer behavior, netizens have gained the ability to create virtual identities for public figures, both through comments released through SNS like Twitter or Tumblr, or by creating an actually profiles on Facebook to mimic the figure. This phenomenon is even more confusing in the case of Ri Sol-ju, in whose case the most official accounts release are dubious in their probably intention to construct a narrative for the Great Leader, as I have discussed at SinoNK before.

A Crack in Which Wall? | Despite the relative vacuum of information about her personal life or alleged previous marriage, what can we really glean from these account fabrications or gossip mongering in social media? More than merely a distraction from the reality of North Korean hardships, social media discourse about Ri Sol-ju does reveals some important ideas worth considering, including international and peninsular attitude toward the North Korean elite. The South Koreans simultaneously praise her beauty and modern style but also remain skeptical, speculating her involvement in social corruption (her alleged affair and divorce) and economic corruption (her use of luxury fashion). The English-speaking audiences, on the other hand, see her as a fashionable doll of the North Korean regime, tagging along by her husbands side though looking elegant. More than knowing more about “Who is Ri Sol-ju?,” the internet-based discourse of her reveals more about the people making the constructions.

Darcie Draudt’s previous publications on modernity and women at Sino-NK:

Previous posts on women in Korea, co-authored with Brian Gleason:

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