Who is North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's 'mystery woman'
- 14 July 2012
- From the section Asia
It started with Mickey Mouse.
When North Korea's state news agency published photos of the country's leader Kim Jong-un at a concert recently, the first face to catch the attention was on stage.
Amid the dancers and North Korean pop starlets, were a selection of Disney characters - among them Mickey and Minnie Mouse.
And no, the news agencies here in Seoul reported, the North Korean regime had NOT cleared copyright with the Disney Corporation.
It was only hours later that attention switched to another face from that set of photographs - the grainy image of a dark-haired woman sitting next to the young North Korean leader.
The question of who she was, and what she was doing sitting next to the Stalinist regime's young heir, buzzed through South Korea's news media.
North Korean media gave no details, but showed her accompanying Kim Jong-un to various state occasions: bowing with him in front of his grandfather's portrait to mark the 18th anniversary of Kim Il-sung's death, walking with him in a fitted black skirt suit and heels, and sitting next to him during the concert performances.
'Wife or sister?'
The Hankyoreh newspaper here in the South said one picture taken during the performances showed the mystery woman with her hand on the armrest of Kim Jong-un's chair.
The normal posture for those in Kim Jong-un's entourage is to keep their elbows tucked respectfully in.
This, said the paper, indicated that she was either his wife, or his younger sister.
A similar discussion erupted six months ago, when an unnamed woman appeared beside Kim Jong-un during his father's funeral commemorations.
It is not known whether Kim Jong-un - believed to be less than 30 years old - has married.
But North Korea's two previous rulers did not routinely include their partners in public events, leading many to conclude that the new mystery woman is a family member.
'Excellent Horse-Like Lady'
Not South Korea's Joongang Ilbo newspaper, though. Its headline this week asked "Is Hyon the new first lady of NK?"
The paper identified Kim Jong-un's companion as Hyon Song-wol, a former singer with North Korea's Bochonbo Electronic Music Band, whose popularity, it says, peaked in 1995 with her hit song "Excellent Horse-Like Lady".
She reappeared to perform for the new North Korean leader in March this year, says the paper, after six years away from the limelight, during which time she reportedly married and had a child.
An unnamed South Korean intelligence official was quoted as saying that "the two have known each other since they were in their teens, and... rumours about the two having an affair have been circulating among Pyongyang's top elite".
If true, Seoul's rumour mill goes, what does that say about the workings of North Korea's new leadership - and more particularly, about the mind of its young leader?
Has Kim Jong-un chosen this smart young woman in western dress as his partner? Is he bucking hoary old tradition by appearing with her - perhaps still married - in public?
As usual, windows into North Korea throw up more questions than answers.
For now, ''mystery woman'' she may remain.
But then, let us not forget, after six months in power, the man next to her - the heir to North Korea's closed "Communist Monarchy" - is only slightly less of a mystery than she.