Somewhere north of the 38th parallel, the earth trembled. Then came the booming declaration from a North Korean woman in a pink traditional robe.
Ri, 74, has been described as the “voice of North Korea” and “the people’s broadcaster,” a sort of Barbara Walters of the reclusive dictatorship. For more than 40 years she has been the most celebrated newsreader at the country’s lone news outlet, Korean Central Television. Her affinity for bright pink Choson-ots, traditional Korean formal dresses, has earned her the title of “pink lady.”
Outsiders like to joke about her. Some call her “Pyongyang Patti,” according to the Atlantic. Or they use her as a foil to ridicule, for example, Sean Spicer (“He is just missing a robe,” said one Twitter user).
More than anything, Ri is known for the rich, imposing voice with which she carries the brutally repressive regime’s message. With signature bombast and operatic flair, she has announced nuclear tests, condemned North Korea’s enemies and narrated the lives and exploits of three generations of North Korean leaders.
“She has a very aggressive voice, one that North Koreans would say ‘fills up the screen,’” Kim Yong, a defector from the North who became a media personality in South Korea, told Reuters in a 2009 profile. Ahn Chan-il, another defector, told the publication this week: “There is no one else who has that power in her voice as she does. It’s just right for talking about nuclear weapons or missiles.”
Details about Ri’s life and career are sparse, but she was reportedly born in 1943 to a poor family in what is now the southeastern part of the country and attended theater school in Pyongyang. She joined state television in 1971, just as it was beginning to take shape, and was promoted to one of its lead anchors shortly after.
The North Korean state-run magazine Chosun Monthly gave an apocryphal account in 2009 of how she became something of a protege of Kim Il Sung, the state founder. Kim pushed her “with warm love and faith” to develop an authoritative voice, according to the story, which was translated by Reuters.
Apparently, Kim’s tutelage worked.
“As these days passed, her voice grew to have an appeal so that whenever she would speak on the news, viewers were touched,” the article read, according to the Reuters translation. “When Ri announced reports and statements, enemies would tremble in fear.”
By the 1980s she was a “constant presence” on the network, reading reports on everything from national events to government proclamations to the weather, according to the blog North Korea Leadership Watch.
In 1994, she tearfully broke the news that Kim Il Sung had died. Seventeen years later, she wept again when she told the country that his son, Kim Jong Il, had died of a sudden illness.
It is perhaps the most famous moment in her long career. A news clip shows Ri dressed in a black robe and looking forlorn, seated in front of a painting of a forest and mountain landscape. Her voice quavers as she delivers the news.
“Our great comrade Kim Jong Il, the general secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea, the chairman of the DPRK National Defense Commission, and the supreme commander of the Korean People’s Army, has passed away,” she intones.
She continues through sobs fit for a daytime soap opera: “We make this announcement with great sorrow.”
Ri retired from the news business in 2012, but the North Korean government has continued to trot her out on special occasions. In September, she announced North Korea’s fifth nuclear test, warning that it “is our response to hostile powers, including the United States.” She went on air in July to boast about the “unwithering power of our state” after the country’s test missile launch that month.
In her private life, Ri lives in “relative luxury” in Pyongyang with her husband, children and grandchildren, according to Chosun Monthly’s article. “Ri Chun-hee with her microphone in hand, blessed by the leader, is still with her viewers today looking not a day older than before she was married,” the article read.
Part of what has made Ri’s career remarkable, according to North Korea Leadership Watch, is that unlike her counterparts she has survived the regime’s periodic purges. The government’s publishing entities and political party are “routinely subjected to generational and political personnel attrition,” read a post on the blog. “Ri has seen many of her colleagues and supervisors dismissed, demoted or sent for re-education.”
Around the time of her retirement, Ri gave a rare interview to a Chinese state media program. In it, she described how she planned to shift her focus to working behind the scenes and training a new generation of broadcasters.
“Many anchor women now are very young and beautiful and are more suitable to appear before the viewers,” Ri said in the segment.
But for now, Ri is still the regime’s go-to spokeswoman for earth-shattering announcements like Sunday’s nuclear test. If hostilities were to erupt on the Korean Peninsula, it would almost certainly be her commanding voice that relays the news.
“It is the very top-level announcements, the ones that North Korea feels particularly proud of and have maximum propaganda value,” Martyn Williams, a writer for a North Korean Tech website, told the Los Angeles Times last month. “She’s the one that goes out and tells the nation and the world.”
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