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North Korea's Kim Jong Un relies on improbable pair of women amid purges

[SEOUL] One sports a Christian Dior handbag and favours Western clothes. The other carries a notebook and wears dark uniforms. These fashion opposites are the two most influential women in North Korea.

While Kim Jong Un's wife Ri Sol Ju and younger sister Kim Yo Jong are currently allies in sustaining one of the world's most reclusive leaders, their overlapping influence makes them potential rivals in a regime where family ties aren't strong enough to protect against Kim's penchant for purges.

These women of Pyongyang offer insight to an opaque regime that, while struggling to feed its people, is capable of maintaining 1.2 million men under arms and threatening neighbors with nuclear annihilation. Ri commands a growing following among the wives of North Korean elite while Kim Yo Jong now holds a senior position in the ruling Workers' Party and serves as an adviser to her brother.

"Uneasiness is inevitable in a relationship like this," Kang Myong Do, a son-in-law of North Korea's former Prime Minister, Kang Song San, said by phone.

"The wife wouldn't like it if her husband got too close to his sister; the sister wouldn't like it if her brother got too close to his wife." The sister would try to oust Ri if the first lady - a "rag-tag commoner" compared to Kim Yo Jong - sought political power beyond the role of burnishing her husband's public image, said Kang, who now teaches North Korean studies at Kyungmin University near Seoul.

Brother's Shadow Kim Yo Jong chooses to remain in her brother's shadow at public events, while Ri locks arms with Kim Jong Un. In a photo released Jan 21 by the state-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper, Kim Yo Jong hides behind a pole as she watches the back of her brother speaking to people at a shoe factory.

Still, Kim Yo Jong "has a lot of control over who has access to her brother, what they say to him, what documents they hand over - in short, she is a combination gatekeeper and traffic cop," said Michael Madden, editor of the North Korea Leadership Watch blog.

She joined her brother in handing out awards to troops at an air force competition in May and that suggests she commands the party's Organization and Guidance Department, which handles everything from promotions to purges, Cheong Seong Chang, a senior analyst at the Sejong Institute near Seoul, said in an e-mail.

Kim's sister remained out of the public eye until she was spotted on state television at her father's funeral in a black mourning dress. In footage shown less than a year later, she was riding a white horse alongside her aunt Kim Kyong Hui.

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The aunt hasn't been seen in public since her husband Jang Song Thaek, once considered the leader's mentor, was executed by his nephew in December 2013 after accusations of graft and factionalism.

Kim Yo Jong began appearing more in public after the purge, and the official Korean Central News Agency last November referred to her as a deputy director of the party, the first time she had been cited with a formal title.

The purge of Jang may have also strengthened the hand of Ri with the North Korean elite looking to avoid a similar fate. Kim Jong Un last year executed another 50 officials on charges ranging from graft to watching South Korean soap operas, South Korean lawmaker Shin Kyung Min said in October after attending a National Intelligence Service briefing.

"The kind of authoritarianism that exists there, you almost can't duplicate anywhere else," President Barack Obama said in an interview on YouTube Jan. 22, in which he answered questions from three of the video website's personalities. "It's brutal and it's oppressive, and as a consequence, the country can't really even feed its own people."

"There are accounts that the wives of North Korean elite used their ties to Ri to "limit the number of officials removed from office due to the Jang purge," Madden said.

"What we'll need to watch for is whether Ri Sol Ju becomes Queen Bee among the wives or if that role is assumed by Yo Jong," he said in an e-mail. "They are a quiet but politically influential cohort in the North Korean elite." In public Ri offers a softer side of the Supreme Leader and has been a regular in North Korean propaganda. In 2005, she traveled to South Korea as a teenage cheerleader for North Korean teams at an athletic competition. Seven years later she was revealed as his wife at an appearance with Kim at an amusement park in July 2012.

Still, so little is known about their relationship that it took former NBA star Dennis Rodman to reveal the couple had a child after a trip to Pyongyang in 2013 to play basketball. Rodman told the Guardian newspaper that he held Kim's daughter Ju-ae and that Kim is a "good dad and has a beautiful family." Citing conversations with people who have been in the room with both women at the same time, Madden said the two appeared friendly to each other as they sat at opposite sides - Ri with her husband and Kim with senior party officials.

Kim was born to the same Korean-Japanese dancer, Ko Yong Hui, as Kim Jong Un. In February 2011 South Korean broadcaster KBS showed what it identified as Kim Yo Jong and her other brother, Kim Jong Chol, enjoying an Eric Clapton concert in Singapore.

Yonhap News said on Jan 2 she married one of party secretary Choe Ryong Hae's sons, citing two people in China it didn't identify and a photo of her wearing a ring. Dong-A Ilbo newspaper rebutted the report days later.

The power of women has been growing in North Korea and they are destined to "rule behind the scenes in the Confucian-minded Korea," Leonid Petrov, a Korea studies researcher at the Australian National University, said by e-mail.

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