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When this broadcaster makes a rare appearance, North Koreans know it’s serious: Story of Ri Chun Hee


When Ri Chun Hee goes on the air, North Koreans can expect a major announcement.

July 15, 2017: Her television voice bellows and booms from deep inside, like a trained diva, with a delivery that commands attention.

And on the rare occasions these days when Ri Chun Hee appears on North Korea’s state-run news network, the audience knows the looming declaration is serious.

The latest broadcast came when Ri — in her raspy, guttural cadence — told the world Tuesday about North Korea’s successful test launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile, a weapon that one day might threaten the U.S. mainland.

The launch, she breathlessly announced, demonstrated the “unwithering power of our state.”

Ri’s three-minute monologue, which helped prompt a flurry of international condemnations, is one of many historic moments in North Korean history the anchor has announced over a decades-long career for Korean Central Television — one of the only places locals can get broadcast news.

“It is the very top-level announcements, the ones that North Korea feels particularly proud of and have maximum propaganda value,” said Martyn Williams, a writer for the North Korean Tech website who gets the government’s broadcasts live via satellite from his San Francisco-area home. “She’s the one that goes out and tells the nation and the world.”

Dressed in black, Ri wept before the nation when reading the news that Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s founding supreme leader, had died in 1994. She did the same in 2011 when his son and dynastic successor, Kim Jong Il, passed away.

Now she’s a presence for the third-generation leader, Kim Jong Un, when North Korea violates United Nations resolutions to achieve breakthroughs in its quest to develop nuclear weapons and the world’s most-powerful ballistic missiles.

Ri, who is in her mid-70s, once anchored the state-news network’s 8 p.m. broadcast, before retiring around 2012. She has since returned for major announcements, such as the two underground nuclear tests performed in 2016.

Her delivery is, one might say, distinctive.

It’s forceful and operatic, with the tones flowing up and down. Sometimes her shoulders follow along as she reads. Occasionally Ri smiles, her expression a seeming mix of joy and pride.

“Whenever I see her, it seems like she’s singing instead of broadcasting the news stories,” said Peter Kim, an assistant professor at Kookmin University in Seoul who watched the missile announcement.

Ri, in her recent appearances, has worn a vivid pink Choson-ot, a traditional outfit that pairs a full-length, high-waisted skirt and a cropped, long-sleeved top. It’s known as hanbok in South Korea.

Melissa Hanham, a senior research associate with the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies who studies detailed imagery for clues about North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, calls Ri “our favorite lady in pink.”

Born in Tongchon, a coastal county in southeastern North Korea, Ri began her news — or propaganda, depending on the perspective — career in 1971, after attending the Pyongyang University of Cinematic and Dramatic Arts. Little is known about her in the West, other than a few details gleaned from rare interviews that have surfaced over the years.

According to a 2008 profile in a North Korean magazine, Ri lives in a modern home with her husband, children and grandchildren in Pyongyang, the capital. At the time, she drove a “luxury” car — a gift from the nation, according to the magazine.

She also once granted an interview to China Central Television, or CCTV, around the time of her retirement, saying a new generation would succeed her on the air.

“I see younger people on television, and they are very beautiful,” she said, her jet-black hair pulled back and up in a conservative style. “I realized for television you need to be young and beautiful.”

Ri, however, is still the go-to voice for what the government sees as its most-important milestones — events that conversely leave United States and South Korean security officials wringing their hands.

Younger anchors don’t have the same gravitas, said Nam Sung-wook, a professor of North Korean Studies at Korea University in Seoul.

“Her voice has strength to it — strong, expressive and also has great charisma to it,” he said. “That’s why she is qualified to deliver important messages.”

It wasn’t just Ri’s announcement, of course, that let the world know about the missile test.

The nearly 40-minute flight of what North Korea calls a Hwasong-14 left plenty of immediate clues about what the country had accomplished. The missile, launched in the morning from a northwestern province, flew more than 500 miles, reaching an altitude of 1,700 miles, before landing in the Sea of Japan.

A flatter trajectory, some experts have said, could have put Alaska within its range. It was the latest sign that the North Korea’s illicit nuclear and missile programs are continuing to advance, leaving Washington and Seoul to weigh a range of less-than-ideal options to address them.

A military strike by the United States could prove catastrophic, and a diplomatic solution also seems unlikely given the Trump administration’s contention that the country must denuclearize before any talks.

Kim Jong Un, for example, took to the airwaves Wednesday to declare, “We will not take a single step back in our choice to strengthen nuclear force.”

The fallout from North Korea’s announcement continued Wednesday, as the South Korean military confirmed that the device was, in fact, an intercontinental ballistic missile, after some hesitation the day before. United States officials, after first questioning whether North Korea had crossed the ICBM threshold, also arrived at that assessment.

As South Korean President Moon Jae-in left for Germany for the G-20 Summit, the National Assembly’s defense committee also passed a resolution condemning the launch.

Such condemnations are nothing new for Ri, likely the most-recognizable news reader in her country — and perhaps the only recognizable one from northeast Asia in Western countries. Her style is so distinctive that it’s also invited comedic parodies in both Taiwan and Japan.

“She’s in that place now that just her presence on television signifies to the North Korean people that this is important, serious news,” said Williams, the technology and media writer. “Certainly her appearance is noted overseas as well.”

By Matt Stiles