Who Is Ri Chun-hee, the Voice of North Korea?

Who Is Ri Chun-hee, the Voice of North Korea?
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What you need to know

Who is Ri Chun-hee, the queen of North Korean media?

Political dynasts Kim Jong-un and his sister Kim Yo-jong are among the top public figures in North Korea. A contender for the third spot is news broadcaster Ri Chun-hee.

Ri is well-known in Asia. She was prominently referenced in Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite (2019), where the original housekeeper Moon-gwang mimicked Ri when she gave a parody speech about the Kim family. “Dear the Supreme Leader, comrade Kim Jong Un, we witnessed the video clip of a con-artist family and we cannot suppress the shock and anger over their evil, despicable acts,” Moon-gwang said with feigned passion.

Many variety shows in South Korea also make fun of Ri with comedians parodying her speech style.

Taiwan also took note of Ri’s unique manner. Taiwanese celebrity Andy Tai Chih-yuan plays Ri to a tee. From her opening tagline to her dramatic praise-singing for Kim Jong-un, Tai does one of the most hilarious renditions of Ri.

Taiwanese news channel CTS instigated a minor scandal in 2011 when a female broadcaster delivered the news in character as Ri. The stunt was fiercely criticized, as many viewers found it unprofessional and disrespectful to Ri. CTS issued an apology the next day, taking full responsibility. But the incident reveals Ri’s symbolic power in Asia as a television anchor.

Born in 1943, Ri graduated from Pyongyang University of Theatre and Film and she started her career in theatrical performance. At the age of 28, she joined the Korean Central Television as a broadcaster. Within three years, she became the lead anchorwoman and she has been working closely with the North Korean government ever since.

Ri made a strong impression both domestically and internationally because she was often summoned to announce major news stories. In 1994, she reported on the death of North Korea’s founder Kim Il-sung, shedding heartbreaking tears on screen. She later reported on the country’s first satellite launch as well as the government’s official statement on nuclear testing.

One of the most well-known incidents about Ri was her reappearance in 2011. After staying off-screen for almost two months, Ri, who was rumored to have retired, showed up again in a black Hanbok, the color of mourning. She reported on the death of Kim Jong-il in a way that provoked a sense of national grief.

Ri retired in December 2018, but she was called back into action by Kim Jong-un’s disappearance last spring to announce that the Dear Leader was safe and sound. Outside commentators have remarked that whenever there is important news to deliver in North Korea, Ri is dispatched to give the message.

Since Ri mostly reported on major current affairs, and her announcement often represented the government’s opinion and policy, she was seen as “the spokesperson” or part of the “propaganda machine” for North Korea.

The reason the Kims have invested Ri with power to transmit their messaging lies in her unique, natural charm. When she is announcing the news, resplendent in her Hanbok, paying homage to the Workers’ Party of Korea, the power of resonant voice echoes long after the broadcast ends. In short, she has a distinct presence.

Kim Jong-il once praised her voice as “transfixing.” Because of her impactful delivery of national news, Ri has been celebrated as “People’s Broadcaster” and “Hero of the Labor Force.”

Her exuberant tone in reporting successful missile launches, and teeth-clenching anger during the mentions of “American imperialists” and “Japanese lackeys” have earned her high status in the North Korean regime.

This status comes with its perks, too. As North Korea’s spokesperson to the outside world, Ri is treated as royalty by the party. She is housed in a mansion and is chauffeured in a limousine.

TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee, Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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