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Loyalty rewarded

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA (AP) – North Korea’s most famous state TV anchor Ri Chun Hi has announced major events for decades, including nuclear and missile tests and the death of a leader, with an instantly identifiable, passionate voice.

The anchor, dubbed the “pink lady” abroad for her bright traditional Korean attire, became the topic of official North Korean media herself on Thursday after leader Kim Jong-un gave her a luxurious residence and asked her to continue to serve as the voice of his ruling Workers’ Party.

Experts said Kim is providing special treatment to elite North Koreans to boost their loyalty as he grapples with the pandemic, a troubled economy and a stalemate in nuclear diplomacy with the United States (US).

“(Kim) said it is the sincerity of the party that it would spare nothing for a national treasure like her, who has worked as a revolutionary announcer for the party for more than 50 years since her girlhood,” the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said. Kim expressed his “expectation that she would as ever vigorously continue her work in good health as befitting a spokeswoman for the party”.

Kim met Ri, who is about 79, on Wednesday after inaugurating a newly built riverside terraced residential district in Pyongyang, the capital, KCNA said. It said houses in the district were presented to Ri and other people who have given distinguished service to the state.

North Korea often inaugurates construction projects to mark key state anniversaries.

FROM LEFT: Kim Jong Un cuts the ribbon during an inauguration ceremony of Pothong riverside terraced residential district in Pyongyang, North Korea; and visits the new house of Korean Central Broadcasting announcer Ri Chun Hi. PHOTOS: KOREAN CENTRAL NEWS AGENCY/KOREA NEWS SERVICE VIA AP

Yesterday was the 110th birthday of Kim’s late grandfather, state founder Kim Ii-sung. It’s the most important anniversary in North Korea, which has been ruled by three generations of the Kim family since its foundation in 1948. The new housing area is where Kim Ii-sung’s official residence was located until the 70s.

Pyongyang is North Korea’s showcase city, and its elite residents enjoy relatively affluent lives compared with people in remote rural areas where many still suffer from poverty and malnutrition. A majority of North Koreans who have fled the country in the past two decades have come from its northern regions close to the border with China.

“By giving houses to those who have been faithful to him, Kim Jong-un would want to further bolster their loyalty and internal unity,” said analyst with the Seoul-based Korea Research Institute for National Strategy Moon Seong Mook. “Ri Chun Hi is a clear example of such people as she’s strongly propagated his nuclear and missile tests and served as a sort of bugler for him.”

Kim toured Ri’s house with her and held her hand as they descended the stairs. Ri said she felt her new house is like a hotel and that all her family members “stayed up all night in tears of deep gratitude for the party’s benevolence”, according to KCNA.

Ri later used her trademark over-the-top speaking technique to narrate a state TV video of Kim showing her the house.

Ri joined state TV in the early 70s when the country was still governed by Kim Ii-sung, and she has gradually become the face and voice of the country’s propaganda-driven news broadcasts.

Her close ties to Kim were shown last year at a government foundation anniversary ceremony when she watched from an elevated veranda right next to Kim, and at one point put her hand on his shoulder and whispered to him. At another event, she was the first person to shake Kim’s hand before holding his arm and posing for a group photo.

Analyst Moon said Ri receives Cabinet member-level treatment at home, appears healthy and is expected to continue to handle key televised announcements for at least the next few years.

Ri’s passionate, effusive style has sometimes generated laughter in other countries. In 2011, a TV station apologised after one of its newsreaders mimicked the tone Ri used when she announced the death of Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il.

Since inheriting power upon his father’s death, Kim Jong-un, 38, has led North Korea with absolute authority. But he is facing one of the toughest moments of his rule after the coronavirus pandemic shocked an economy already in dire shape from mismanagement and US-led sanctions.

Analysts said recent missile tests were meant to advance his weapons arsenal and pressure the US into recognising North Korea as a nuclear state and relaxing international sanctions.

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