SEOUL — When a brand new luxury residential area opened in the North Korean capital Pyongyang this week, the country’s leader Kim Jong-un said it would be reserved for his most elite supporters, those he called “true patriots.” .
Among them was Ri Chun-hee, state television’s chief news presenter.
At a ceremony on Thursday, Mr. Kim not only presented one of the two-storey apartments to the legendary presenter. He also gave her a tour of her new home while holding her hand. Of course, she told it all in a state media video.
Ms. Ri, 79, is known both inside and outside the hermetically sealed nation for her soaring, bombastic and emotional newscasts and has been a fixture on North Korean television for more than 50 years.
A mouthpiece for the country’s dictators since 1971, she has guided her compatriots through major developments such as nuclear and missile tests, as well as the deaths of the country’s past leaders: Kim Il-sung in 1994 and Kim Jong-il in 2011.
She seemed to melt with emotion as she brought news of the country’s current leader, who is revered as a god by North Korean citizens. But to South Korean viewers, when she’s turned to more alarming announcements like the North’s weapons tests, her belligerent cries can seem just as blood-curdling as the information itself.
Observers from the South Korean government and intelligence agencies – as well as South Koreans in general – braced themselves when Ms. Ri appeared on TV, opening what they are opening a “mouth that fires guns.”
“Her steel-crunching voice sends chills to the enemy,” a 2008 issue of North Korean magazine Chosun said of Ms. Ri.
In North Korea, according to Chosun, she has the title of ‘labor hero’. Abroad, she is known as “the pink lady,” due to the color of the traditional Korean clothing she wears to deliver news stories.
Ms. Ri disappeared from the air in the 2010s after reports of her retiring, but since then she has resurfaced occasionally to deliver key news, including narrating Mr. Kim’s 2021 New Year’s speech.
Ms. Ri didn’t use her booming voice when North Korea tested its most powerful intercontinental ballistic missile in March. At the time, the country’s state media released a Hollywood-style video of Mr. Kim, who appeared to be personally leading the test launch, wearing a sleek leather jacket and sunglasses.
South Korea later said elements of the missile launch may have been faked, with Mr Kim disguising an older missile as a new one to exaggerate his country’s weapons performance.
In this week’s house tour video, she was much more operatic than bombastic. She said her new home felt “like a hotel” and was fully equipped.
State media video showed a spacious riverside apartment with gleaming wood floors, a living room furnished with a white five-seater sofa, a spacious bedroom, a kitchen with an L-shaped countertop and a six-seater dining table. The apartment also has a study room and a veranda overlooking the center of Pyongyang. There was no trace of a TV in the images. (The value of the apartment was not immediately apparent. The total number of bedrooms and square footage was not known.)
The ceremony was widely publicized by the North Korean state, which published photos of Mr. Kim and Ms. Ri taking the tour. Rewarded with an apartment in the complex, among others, were members of the state media, whose mission is also to spread propaganda.
Such generosity to those deemed loyal to the regime is not uncommon in North Korea. Kim Jong-il donated luxury cars, watches, liquor or houses to his closest associates. The current leader has mainly verbally encouraged – or purged – officials. But he has recently tried to bolster his base of support by providing luxury apartments to senior officials, even as the country has endured economic trials exacerbated by pandemic isolation and a diplomatic stalemate with much of the world.
As part of a five-year project to build 50,000 apartments in the capital to address the country’s housing problems, the luxury apartments opened two days after the completion of the high-rise to accommodate 10,000 ordinary residents. They can accommodate Pyongyang’s workforce, including a growing white-collar workforce, which continues to struggle with food and electricity shortages.
The gift for Ms. Ri came on Friday ahead of the 110th anniversary of the birth of North Korea’s founder Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-un’s grandfather. The occasion is considered one of the most important national holidays in the north, which in previous years has commemorated the birthday with mass gatherings or military parades.
According to state media, Mr Kim said, “There is nothing left for national treasures like Ri Chun-hee, who has lived a virtuous life with the revolutionary microphone.” He also asked her to continue to serve vigorously as the voice of his ruling Workers’ Party.
As for Ms. Ri, she said she was “so grateful for the benevolent care of the party” that she and her family were “moved to tears.”