SEOUL (Reuters) – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s wife and influential aunt made a rare appearance in state media on Wednesday, as the ruling family has maintained a low profile during the coronavirus pandemic.
Kim’s wife, Ri Sol Ju, and his aunt, Kim Kyong Hui, attended an art performance at the Mansudae Art Theatre in the capital, Pyongyang, celebrating the Lunar New Year holiday, state television showed.
Ri was last seen publicly on Sept. 9, when she joined her husband in visiting the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, which houses the embalmed bodies of Kim’s late grandfather and father, on the anniversary of the country’s founding.
“When (Kim) appeared at the auditorium of the theatre with his wife, Ri Sol Ju, amid the playing of the welcome music, the audience raised stormy cheers of ‘Hurrah!'” the official KCNA news agency said.
TV footage showed Ri, in a traditional red-and-black hanbok dress, chatting and smiling with Kim during the show, and the couple taking the stage to shake hands and take a photo with the artists.
The clip also confirmed the first appearance since January 2020 of Kim’s aunt and a former senior official of the ruling Workers’ Party, Kim Kyong Hui, seen watching the concert sitting next to Ri.
Kim Kyong Hui was a key figure in the young leader’s first years in power, but had disappeared from media after he ordered the execution of her powerful husband, Jang Song Thaek, over treason charges in 2013, before making a surprise comeback six years later.
South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) said in 2017 that she was dealing with unspecified illness outside Pyongyang.
Ri had once garnered international attention as she often accompanied Kim on social, business and even military outings, in a stark break from his father, Kim Jong Il, who was rarely seen in public with any of his wives.
She was absent from state media for more than a year before being seen attending a concert last February, fuelling speculation over her health and potential pregnancy.
The NIS told lawmakers that she apparently refrained from outside activities to prevent COVID-19 infections but was “playing well with their kids.”
The spy agency believes Kim and Ri have three children, but little is publicly known about them.
North Korea has not confirmed any COVID-19 outbreaks, but closed its borders and taken strict curbs including travel restrictions.
(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin. Editing by Gerry Doyle)