Is the North Korean Dictator Having an Affair with a Pop Star?

Slate's Culture Blog
July 11 2012 3:01 PM

Is the North Korean Dictator Having an Affair with a Pop Star?

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North Korea's leader Kim Jong-Un.

PEDRO UGARTE/AFP/Getty Images

Kim Jong-un may be in love with one of North Korea’s most famous electronic music stars. At least, that’s what The Daily Telegraph reports, after the mysterious young woman who appeared by the dictator’s side over the weekend was identified by South Korean officials as Hyon Song-wol, from the “hugely popular” Pochonbo Electronic Ensemble.

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Their top hits include “Footsteps of Soldiers,” “I Love Pyongyang,” “She is a Discharged Soldier,” or “We Are Troops of the Party.” The ensemble has apparently been around since 1983—the year, reportedly, of Kim Jong-un’s birth—and takes its name from the Battle of Poch'ŏnbo, when Kim’s grandfather and founder of the North Korean dictatorship led an attack against the Japanese. Their songs rely heavily on military beats and choruses supporting the lead singer’s soprano voice.

Of course, “popular” is a questionable attribute in a country where the only music available comes from a handful of state-approved artists. But one thing is for sure: Pochonbo’s musicians are hard workers. Their Myspace fan page has tracked over 150 albums since they started.

Hyon appears to have joined the group in the late 1990s or early 2000s and left in 2006. Her biggest hit is the evocative “Excellent Horse-Like Lady,” released in 2005. (A video clip posted on Youtube yesterday shows two North Korean factory workers producing what appear to be spools of thread as one of them—possibly Hyon—sings joyfully.)*

According to reports, the singer started dating Younger Kim ten years ago, after he returned home from studying in Switzerland—but his father disapproved of the relationship and the couple broke up. Hyon may have subsequently married an army officer and had a child with him. But that doesn’t seem to have stopped the Supreme Leader. Toshimitsu Shigemura, an academic from Tokyo's Waseda University interviewed by the Telegraph, reckons Hyon may now be North Korea’s first lady, as Kim Jong-un tries to “show a new style of leadership.”

The young dictator certainly seems to be going for a hipper reign than his father’s. Only a week ago, he announced he would allow women to wear pants, platform shoes, and earrings. He also said that the country would produce more cell phones and that formerly banned foods, like pizza and French fries, would be permitted. (Welcome news for North Koreans, one imagines, many of whom do not get enough to eat.) On Monday, the country’s state-run television showed their leader sitting next to his belle at a private show where costumed versions of Disney characters—symbols, one would think, of the regime’s worst enemy, the United States—performed. Maybe this represents a new populism. Or maybe it’s love.

* This post originally identified the objects in the factory as rolls of toilet paper. They appear to be spools of thread.