TOKYO — The wife of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un resurfaced in public view this week after an unexplained absence of more than a year, joining her husband at a concert on an important national holiday.
Ri Sol Ju’s absence had provoked speculation that she might be pregnant or sick, that she had fallen out with her husband or that she might have been getting too much attention for his comfort.
In the end, though, South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) believes the reason was much less dramatic: She had merely been spending time with her children and sheltering the regime’s bloodline from the coronavirus pandemic.
Images of Ri published by state media on Wednesday showed her smiling and clapping next to Kim at a concert on Tuesday to mark the Day of the Shining Star, the official birthday of Kim’s late father, former leader Kim Jong Il.
“As the General Secretary came to the auditorium of the theater together with his wife Ri Sol Ju amid the welcome music, all the participants burst into thunderous cheers of ‘Hurrah!’ ” the official Korean Central News Agency reported.
Ri had often accompanied Kim to major public events but had not been seen since January last year at an event for the Lunar New Year holiday.
“The answer was that there have not been any unusual signs, and Ri has just been hanging out with her children,” the ruling Democratic Party’s Kim Byung-kee told reporters. The intelligence officials “assume that she has not made public appearances due to coronavirus issues,” he added.
The NIS has said the pair have three children, but they are never seen in public, and little is known about them.
“The scope of Ri’s public activities had been seriously limited by the coronavirus,” said Kim Yong-hyun, a professor in North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul. “By her dramatic reappearance in public, North Korea aims to demonstrate that its capital, Pyongyang, is kept safe from the virus.”
At the concert at the Mansudae Art Theater in Pyongyang, no one in the audience was shown wearing masks. North Korea, which closed its borders to keep out the pandemic, claims not to have found any confirmed coronavirus cases, although it is set to receive nearly 2 million doses of the AstraZeneca-Oxford University vaccine from the United Nations-backed Covax distribution program.
In addition to crimping North Korea’s vital trade with China, the border closure — along with increased surveillance on the Chinese side — has made it harder for defectors to flee the country. But some escapees are finding creative ways to get out.
On Tuesday, Seoul officials said a North Korean man was captured inside South Korea after apparently swimming across the maritime border in a wet suit and with a set of fins.
South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) said the man, who is believed to be a civilian, was spotted near the eastern end of the heavily fortified zone dividing the two countries, having swum across the frigid waters and passed through a drainage pipe to evade fences along the coast. A wet suit and fins were found on the shore, a military official said.
In November, a former North Korean gymnast crossed the border by reportedly jumping over the 10-foot barbed wire fence, according to South Korean media outlets. While it remains relatively rare for defectors to take the risky route across the heavily guarded inter-Korean border, both incidents have sparked concern in South Korea about security and surveillance along the frontier.
In a statement Wednesday, the JCS acknowledged that the drain near the border was not properly guarded and that the military was slow to take action even after detecting the man on surveillance equipment.
Sokeel Park, South Korea country director of Liberty in North Korea, an organization helping refugees from the North, said it was difficult to draw conclusions from a single case but that the escape could be seen in the context of the border closure with China and the difficulty of defecting through the usual routes.
Seoul’s Unification Ministry said the number of North Korea defectors settling in the South in 2020 declined by 78 percent to 229 compared with the previous year.