Meet the legendary North Korean newsreader who came out of retirement to tell the world about H-bomb blast
Doyen of daily news, Ri Chun-hee returned to shout from the hilltops about the H-bomb
The one certainty in unpredictable North Korea was that if the state detonated a nuclear device or former leader Kim Jong-il visited a duck farm, Ri Chun-hee would have been on TV boasting about the amazing accomplishment.
The grandmother re-emerged on national TV Wednesday to enthusiastically announce the claimed H-bomb test today which shook areas in China bordering North Korea with a 5.1 magnitude earthquake.
Ri had been in retirement after an illustrious career on the hermit kingdom’s only television channel.
She was the forceful grandmother speaking with the authority of the state as the main newscaster for North Korea’s only TV channel. Her face was one of the few broadcast abroad and her stentorian reports thunder across airwaves in a land where the Dear Leader rarely spoke.
Ri, born in 1943, is an actress turned newscaster who first took to the air in 1971 when the North’s state TV channel was taking off.
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Slightly plump, with permed black hair, she has become an institution whose bombastic delivery decries the miseries inflicted upon the state by a hostile world while celebrating its military triumphs.
“With her rusty voice that is powerful and appealing, what could the [then] 65-year-old Ri have gone through to become the people’s broadcaster and hardworking hero?” the North’s Chosun Monthly magazine asked in a 2009 article.
Since the North’s state media is in the habit of answering the questions it poses, the magazine tells of Ri’s rise to fame, that of course was guided by state founder Kim Il-sung, who nurtured her “with warm love and faith”.
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Kim pushed her to be a broadcaster with fiery speech, the magazine said in one of the few North Korean news stories giving details of her life.
“As these days passed, her voice grew to have an appeal so that whenever she would speak on the news, viewers were touched. When Ri announced reports and statements, enemies would tremble in fear,” it added.
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Experts in the North’s ideology said she was akin to a high priestess of the state’s propaganda apparatus who cannot be avoided in the hermit country where TV sets turn on and off but cannot change channel.
Over the years, she has denounced South Korea, Japan and the United States with frequency as she delivered news of the North’s two nuclear tests. She brimmed with pride while recounting the activities of Great Leader Kim Il-sung and Dear Leader Kim Jong-il, his son, as they toured military bases, cabbage patches and steel mills.
Usually dressed in traditional Korean clothes, Ri is the most trusted name in news in the North Korean state with expertise in propaganda and developing cults of personality for its leaders.
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“She has a very aggressive voice, one that North Koreans would say ‘fills up the screen’,” said Kim Yong, who defected from the North and became a TV personality in South Korea. “Listening to South Korean newscasters when I first arrived sounded like hearing mum and dad talk in their room. The newscasters sometimes stumbled on words, while the ones in North Korea are never allowed to, or they’ll get fired.”
Ri lives in Pyongyang with her husband, children and grandchildren, the magazine story said.
“Ri Chun-hee with her microphone in hand, blessed by the leader, is still with her viewers today looking not a day older than before she was married,” it said.