Keeping up with the Kims: North Korea's elusive first family

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Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un and his wife are surrounded by young people in service wearImage source, AFP/KCNA
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Kim Jong-un is said to have become a father for the third time with his wife (pictured together in March 2017)

Like a lot of things in North Korea, the details of Kim Jong-un's immediate family are murky.

He is married to a former singer, Ri Sol-ju, who South Korean intelligence says gave birth to a third child in February last year. We know very little about their children.

Mr Kim's sister Kim Yo-jong and half-sister Kim Sul-song are believed to have key roles working in support of him. He is the grandson of North Korea's revered founder Kim Il-sung, who died in 1994.

These women are becoming more visible as Kim Jong-un works to implement generational change in the ruling party and consolidate his power.

Why is there so much mystery?

Not a lot has been revealed about Kim Jong-un's upbringing and he only made his first publicised appearance in September 2010, just over a year before his father's death in December 2011.

Image source, AFP/getty
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Kim Jong-un is reported to have studied in Europe under an alias

We don't even really know when he was born, but it is estimated to be either 1983 or 1984.

His grandfather was often seen with his wife in public and in photographs with their children.

Image source, Reuters
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A young Kim Jong-il is pictured with his father Kim Il-sung and mother Kim Jong-suk

But his father and predecessor Kim Jong-il was a lot more elusive. He was thought to have had at least four different partners - Song Hae-rim, Kim Young-sook, Ko Young-hui (Kim Jong-un and Kim Yo-jong's mother) and Kim Ok - but his relationships were mostly kept out of the public eye.

He is known, however, to have fathered three boys and two girl.

A complicated line of succession

As the youngest of Kim Jong-il's sons, Kim Jong-un was not considered a favourite to take over from his father, but was named successor in 2011 after his death.

Global attention turned to the complicated history of the Kim family after the assassination of his older half-brother Kim Jong-nam in a Malaysian airport in February 2017.

Image source, AFP/Getty
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Jong-nam (pictured here as a boy, and in later life) was rumoured to have enjoyed a party lifestyle while in exile

A mysterious video of Kim Jong-nam's son, Kim Han-sol, then emerged online - making a male heir even more important for the North Korean leader.

In August 2013 North Korea's founding principles were reportedly revised to enshrine the supremacy of the "Baekdu bloodline" to legitimise the Kim dynasty's continued inheritance of the country's leadership.

Since then Kim Jong-un's sister, Kim Yo-jong, thought to be about 30, has enjoyed a spectacular rise to prominence within the ruling elite.

She is said to be especially close to her brother from shared years of schooling in Switzerland in the late 1990s, and in recent years has been responsible for much of his image-making, as vice director of the party's propaganda and agitation department.

Image source, EPA
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Kim Yo-jong (left) is said to be an increasingly formidable force within the ruling party

She also has a central role working in her brother's personal executive office along with her half-sister Kim Sul-song (daughter of Kim Jong-il and Kim Young-sook), says analyst Michael Madden, the founder and director of NK Leadership Watch.

There is a lot of credible intelligence from multiple sources that these two women - once among their father's favourite offspring - are part of the decision-making behind key geostrategic issues, Mr Madden says.

With a few others, they form the core of Kim Jong-un's "kitchen cabinet".

Kim Yo-jong's promotion to the party politburo last year, and her selection as envoy to the Winter Olympic Games in South Korea, are evidence of her increasing importance and her secure position at the highest level of the leadership in Pyongyang.

Who is Kim's wife?

Little is known about "Comrade Ri Sol-ju". Was she an erstwhile singer who caught Mr Kim's attention during a performance? There is a North Korean performer with her name but it has never been officially confirmed that they are the same person.

North Korean television named her in 2012 after speculation over the identity of a woman appearing at public events with him, though the pair probably married three years earlier.

Speculation she was pregnant began in 2016 after her disappearance from the public eye, but has never been confirmed officially.

Image source, AFP/KCNA
Image caption,
Kim Jong-un and his wife pictured with US basketball player Dennis Rodman in 2014

Two previous children are believed to have been born in 2010 and 2013, but it is not known whether any are male and therefore a potential successor.

He described having a "relaxing time by the sea" with the Kims on a visit to the country and described Kim Jong-un as a "good dad" who "has a beautiful family".

Ri Sol-ju's Western style of dress and relaxed relations with her husband in public drew comparisons with the style of former US first lady Michelle Obama.