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Is Kim Jong-un's mystery lady signaling a shift for North Korea?

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Korean Central News Agency via Korea News Service/AP

(Read caption) In this photo, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, center right, and a woman clap with others as they a watch performance by North Korea's new Moranbong band in Pyongyang, North Korea, Friday, July 6. There is speculation on Kim Jong-un being flanked by a 'mystery woman' in official state photographs.

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North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has recently been seen flanked by a "mystery woman" in official state photographs. The resulting international fascination and buzz indicates just how little the global community knows about secretive North Korea.

Mr. Kim, much like his father Kim Jong-il, who ruled North Korea for 17 years until his death in December 2011, makes few personal details public, such as his marital status or age. Kim’s father and grandfather were rarely seen in public with their wives, and the younger Kim’s mother was only recently introduced to the public via a state propaganda video.

The obsession with personal information about North Korea’s leaders, therefore, can come off a bit like a gossip magazine calling to readers from the grocery store checkout line:

“Was the slim woman in the sharp black suit his sister, wife or even lover?” asks CNN.

“Koreans on both sides of the divided peninsula have a new mystery to ponder: who is that elegant young woman at his side?” The Sydney Morning Herald reports.

And The Wall Street Journal chimes in with this one: “Is North Korean dictator Kim [Jong-un] married? Or is he hanging out with his sister a lot these days?”

Secrecy is not new to North Korea. Earlier this spring, a (failed) missile launch led to speculation that the country’s true aim was not to send a satellite into orbit as Pyongyang claimed, but to test long-range missiles. Later, a military parade put on display what looked like large KN-08 missiles on giant launchers, raising international concern that the country was getting closer to building intercontinental ballistic missiles. Upon closer examination of parade photos, however, they were determined to be fakes. "It remains unknown if they were designed this way to confuse foreign analysts, or if the designers simply did some sloppy work,” wrote Markus Schiller and Robert Schmucker, of Germany's Schmucker Technologie, in a paper posted on the website Armscontrolwonk.com, reported the Associated Press at the time.

Some argue the presence of the mystery woman and other recent activities represent a shift in dealing with the public and could indicate a broader change in North Korean policy.

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"Everything related to Kim Jong-il's children is a deadly secret," said North Korea expert Andrei Lankov of Kookmin University in South Korea, according to CNN. Though Mr. Lankov believes it is unlikely the international community will find out the woman’s identity, he speculates her presence could be part of a larger plan to make the younger Kim “much more approachable, human-like and soft on people.”

Kim, who is believed to be in his late 20s, has sought to “embrace the youthful energy of the country,” reports ABC news, with plans to create a “children’s heaven nation.” He was seen with the unidentified woman at a concert featuring the unauthorized use of Disney characters Friday. He was also seen perusing fast food stalls during a recent event honoring the 66th anniversary of the Korean Children’s Union. Some media reported that he has imported theme park rides from Europe. Together, these activities come as a surprise from a country that “has long taken pains to keep popular culture out of its media,” and tries to avoid “spiritual pollution from the West,” reports the BBC.

Then there’s the increasing regularity of Kim’s televised public appearances and addresses. His first speech, in April, lasted close to 20 minutes, reports the BBC. His father “is thought to have made one recorded public utterance in his 18-year rule – and that was a single sentence.”

But for all the hope of greater openness, many interpret the recent buzz more skeptically – and with a bit more bite.

“[W]omen there are wearing trousers and children are being allowed go to the zoo. Korea watchers reckon that, by 2060, the country might have caught up with the late 19th century,” writes columnist Robert McNeill in the Belfast Telegraph.

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