North Korean despot Kim Jong-un’s wife has not been seen in public for almost a year and appears to have been replaced at the dictator's side by his pop star ex-lover.
Ex-singer Hyon Song-wol, 43, even appears to have pushed aside Kim's ambitious sister, who had become an understudy set to take over amid rumours he had become ill earlier this year. Experts believe the twist could be a sign of a massive family rift among the Kim dynasty, possibly over his sister becoming over-ambitious and Kim trying to strike out alone.
The musician appears to have taken over many of the tasks usually done by younger sister Kim Yo-jong, 32, while Kim's wife Ri Sol-ju, 31, has not been seen since the new year. This comes amid speculation last week that Sol-ju had retreated from public life due to health issues.
Kim renewed relationship with Hyon Song-wol means it is possible his arranged marriage is on the rocks and Sol-ju has slipped back into the shadows, forced away from public events. It is believed Song-wol had previously had an affair with Kim several years ago.
Wang Son-taek, a South Korean journalist, wrote on the NK News website the apparent power shift indicates either a rift with the ruthless sister or that Kim is now becoming more independent. Previously he has often sought advice from his politically savvy sister. And although known previously to have taken on young sex-slaves and mistresses discreetly, he may be showing defiance against North Korean society by showing off his affair.
Wang Son-taek wrote: "The positive theory is that the leader grew up and is becoming more independent. "This would mean that Kim Yo-jong is now on the right track towards her own leadership-building path and is strongly supported by her brother. A more negative theory is that Kim Jong-un is disappointed in his sister, whom he has relied on a lot emotionally. This would no doubt spell psychological trouble within the Kim family."
Earlier this month thousands of North Korean troops paraded through the capital Pyongyang, showing off tanks and intercontinental ballistic missiles. Hyon showed dignitaries to their seats and took away bunches of flowers that were handed to Kim, 36, and stood behind him as he delivered a speech. Meanwhile, his sister sat yards away from her brother, among lesser officials, whereas just months ago she was publicly threatening South Korea with military action. And State television cameras showed her face only once during the three-hour broadcast.
Hyon is the leader of the Moranbong Band, an all-female pop group selected in 2012 by Mr Kim. The 10 or so musicians play electric keyboards, guitars and violins dressed in spangled, lowcut outfits and quasi-military uniforms. In 2018, she was a key member of the team that negotiated North Korea's last-minute participation in the South Korean Winter Olympics.
Kim's wife has stepped away from public view before, once when she was believed to have been pregnant.