Call it a North Korean soap opera — "The Jong-un and the Restless," perhaps.
North Korea's supreme leader, Kim Jong-un, has Asia analysts in a tizzy over his appearance with a young woman in a little black dress.
Is she his wife, his sister, his North Korean pop-singer girlfriend? Nobody outside of the secretive, communist, nuclear-armed country — and precious few within it — knows for certain.
North Korea watchers are not even sure of her name.
The unidentified mystery woman appeared twice in public with the 20-something North Korean dictator last weekend, once during a musical concert with pirated Mickey and Minnie Mouse characters and again at a commemoration of the death 18 years ago of the nation's founder and Mr. Kim's grandfather, Kim Il-sung.
Her appearance is significant, analysts say, because wives and other relatives only very rarely have appeared in public with past North Korean leaders.
"It took some 15 years for his grandfather to even mention in public that he was married," said Andrei Lankov, a North Korea specialist at Seoul's Kookmin University. "The personal background of his father, Kim Jong-il, was never ever made public" during his 17-year reign.
A softer image?
The new dictator has "moved very rapidly to demonstrate that he's in charge" since taking over from his dead father in January, said Bruce Bennett, a North Korea analyst at the Rand Corp., a think tank with historic links to the U.S. military.
Kim Jong-un has done so, in part, by "doing things a little differently than under his father," Mr. Bennett said.
Mr. Lankov said the mystery woman's appearance at Mr. Kim's side was part of a deliberate effort by the supreme leader "to project a new, softer image" to his people.
"He talks to people. He hugs everybody. I mean, a very unusual frequency of physical contact with his subjects," Mr. Lankov said.
North Korea's state-controlled media broadcast footage of the short-haired young woman in a dark Mao jacket and knee-length skirt accompanying Mr. Kim at his grandfather's mausoleum and earlier at the faux-Disney concert.
But she was not identified, and the South Korean media has published various theories about who she might be.
The Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported that she is Mr. Kim's younger sister, Kim Yo-jong. Others noted that a different woman, who stood behind Mr. Kim during his father's funeral last year, had been identified as Yo-jong.
An alternative theory, favored by U.S. analysts, is that the woman is Mr. Kim's wife or girlfriend.
The Daily JoonAng website, citing unamed South Korean intelligence officials, reported that she is a former North Korean pop singer, Hyon Song-wol, who was the lead vocalist of the Bochonbo Electronic Music Band.
Ms. Hyon has been seen in public once before with Mr. Kim, when he attended a performance where she sang for International Women's Day on March 8. At that time, she appeared heavily pregnant, the JoonAng said.
South Korean intelligence believes the relationship between Mr. Kim and Ms. Hyon goes back many years and was broken off in the mid-2000s on orders from Mr. Kim's father, Kim Jong-il.
Japanese media later reported Ms. Hyon had married someone else. Some reports said that her husband is a North Korean army officer and that they are still married. After Mr. Kim's father died suddenly last year, the new leader "rekindled the relationship," the JoonAng reported.
The uncertainty about the woman's identity underlines the extent to which North Korea — a country at the center of global concerns about nuclear and ballistic missile proliferation — remains a closed society, with reliable information almost impossible to come by.
For example, no one knows for certain whether Mr. Kim is married or exactly how old he is. Although if estimates that he is in his late 20s are correct, he would be the youngest head of state of a nuclear-armed nation in history.
Neither the State Department nor the CIA would comment this week on whether U.S. officials knew the identity of his presumptive consort.
Cracks in the wall
The information barricade works in both directions. Listening to foreign media is illegal in North Korea, and radios and televisions are sold pre-tuned to state media frequencies and have no dial.
Nonetheless, Mr. Kim seems to know there are cracks in the information wall around the country, where even South Korean soap operas are smuggled in.
"He has now done two things which seem to recognize that information is leaking in from the outside," Mr. Bennett said, citing the weekend concert that featured costumed Disney dancers and reports by North Korean state media that April's attempted rocket launch had failed.
"They would never have done that before," Mr. Bennett said.
On Wednesday, state TV showed footage of Mr. Kim at another concert where a band played a rendition of the theme song from the movie "Rocky IV" while clips showed Sylvester Stallone in the title role boxing against his Cold War Russian rival, Ivan Drago
Some analysts suggested it is significant the North Korean leader should appear to be publicly embracing American icons such as Rocky Balboa and Mickey Mouse — the United States is technically still in a state of war with Pyongyang, after all — but Mr. Lankov played that down.
"There is nothing particularly subversive about Mickey Mouse," he said, noting that most children's clothing and toys in North Korea are imported from China. "And the Chinese do not have any hesitation about putting Mickey everywhere."
"Could be he just really likes Disney," Mr. Bennett said. "Maybe he's trying to tell the world that he can copy whatever [intellectual property] he pleases."
The Walt Disney Co. said it did not authorize the use of its trademarked costumes or the broadcast of clips from its movies that were played at the concert.
Mr. Lankov said the succession of signals showed that "some changes are going to happen," but he cautioned it is "way too early" to know what exactly.
"It's a significant change," Mr. Bennett said, "but we don't fully know what the message is."
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