Rose in the Baekdu: A Satirical Vogue Profile of North Korea's New First Lady

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A year after the fashion magazine's since-removed story on Syria's first lady, here's how it might profile Kim Jong Un's new wife.

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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un with his wife, Ri Sol Ju. (KCNA)

When Vogue defended its glowing profile of Syria's "thin, long-limbed" first lady Asma al-Assad last year, a senior editor with the world's preeminent fashion magazine argued that the glowing article "could open up that very closed world a very little bit." Asked if Vogue would ever consider serving its 11.7 million readers with a similarly flattering story on the first lady of North Korea, he didn't rule it out. "That's the kind of hypothetical that -- we really do that on a case-by-case basis."

It was hypothetical, but it doesn't have to be anymore. At the time, North Korea was ruled by Kim Jong Il, who was not believed to be married. But now his son Kim Jong Un is in charge, and the new dictator revealed this week that he is married to a nice-looking young lady named Ri Sol Ju. There's no reason to believe that Vogue is currently working on a long-form profile of Ju and her charms -- after all, U.S. sanctions prevent lobbying firm Brown Lloyd James, which charged Assad $5,000-a-month to shepherd the piece, from picking up Kim Jong Un regime as a client -- but what if they were? Below, a modest proposal for how to the magazine might follow up its sensational "Asma al-Assad: A Rose in the Desert":


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Ri Sol Ju: A Rose in the Baekdu

Ri Sol Ju is glamorous, young, and very chic -- the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies. Her style is not the couture-and-bling dazzle of totalitarian power but a deliberate lack of adornment. She's a rare combination: a thin, long-limbed beauty with a trained analytic mind who dresses with cunning understatement. The North Korean Central News Agency calls her "comrade Ri, presidium of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Workers Party of Korea and vice chairman of the Central Military Commission." She is the first lady of North Korea.

North Korea is known as the safest country in East Asia, possibly because, as the State Department's Web site says, it is a horrifically oppressive police state. It's a secular country where women earn as much as men and dissent is forbidden in universities, a place without bombings, unrest, or kidnappings, but its shadow zones are deep and dark. Ri's husband, Kim Jong Un, was chosen as president in 2011, after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il. In North Korea, power is hereditary. There are souvenir Stalin ashtrays in the mall. Its number-one enmity is clear: America.

"It's a tough neighborhood," admits Ri Sol Ju.

The first impression of Ri Sol Ju is movement -- a determined swath cut through space with a flash of red soles. Dark-brown eyes, short black hair, long neck, an energetic grace. No watch, no jewelry apart from Chanel agates around her neck, not even a wedding ring, but fingernails lacquered a dark blue-green. She's breezy, conspiratorial, and fun. Her accent is English but not plummy. Despite what must be a killer IQ, she sometimes uses urban shorthand: "I was, like. . . ."

The 20-something first lady's central mission is to change the mind-set of North Koreans under age 18, encourage them to engage in what she calls "active citizenship." "It's about everyone taking shared responsibility in moving this country forward, about empowerment in a civil society. We all have a stake in this country; it will be what we make it."

And then there's her cultural mission: "People tend to see North Korea as missiles and gulags," she says. "For us it's about the accumulation of cultures, traditions, values, customs. We have to make sure that we don't lose that... " Here she gives an apologetic grin. "You have to excuse me, but I'm a banker -- that brand essence."

The presidential family lives surrounded by neighbors in a modern apartment in Pyongyang. On Friday, Ri Sol Ju opens the door herself in jeans and old suede stiletto boots, hair in a ponytail, the word happiness spelled out across the back of her T-shirt. At the bottom of the stairs stands the off-duty president in jeans -- short, squat, dark-eyed. A precise man who takes photographs and talks lovingly about his first computer, he says he was attracted to Ri for her singing in the Unhasu Orchestra and the fact that she had twice traveled abroad, a rarity for most North Koreans.

Ri Sol Ju empties a box of kimchi into a saucepan for lunch. The household is run on wildly democratic principles. "We all vote on what we want, and where," she says. The chandelier over the dining table is made of cut-up propaganda leaflets. "They outvoted us three to two on that."

Two nights later it's the annual Death To American Imperialism concert by the children of Kim Il Sung Choir, run by a re-educated member of North Korea's "wavering" class. Just before it begins, Kim Jong Un and Ro Sol Ju slip down the aisle and take the two empty seats in the front row. People clap, and some call out his nickname: 

"Righteous Leader! Righteous Leader!" 

Two hundred children dressed variously as soldiers or workers share the stage with members of the national orchestra, who are done up in Mao suits. The show becomes a full-on songfest, with the soldiers and workers giving their all to "We Have Nothing to Envy in the World." The carols slide into a more serpentine rhythm, a Korean rap group takes over, and then it's back to Broadway mode. The president whispers, "All of these styles belong to our culture. This is how you fight Western imperialism -- through art."  

Brass bells are handed out. Now we're all singing "Jingle Bell Rock," 1,331 audience members shaking their bells, singing, crying, and laughing. 

"This is the diversity you want to see on the Korean peninsula," says the president, ringing his bell. "This is how you can have peace!"

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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