North Korea made global news late Tuesday night when it announced that a small earthquake in the northern region of the country was caused by the successful detonation of a hydrogen bomb. And who was splashed on television screens across the nation and around the world to break the news to people far and wide? North Korea’s most famous news broadcaster, Ri Chun-hee, a 72-year-old grandmother who came out of retirement for the momentous occasion.
Ri is basically the Barbara Walters of North Korean television news — at least in terms of popularity and trustworthiness, if not in the actual practice of journalism as it’s defined outside of North Korea. She’s also known for her signature broadcasting style that’s full of bluster and bombast.
That dramatic bravado is on full display in the H-bomb announcement. Watch it below. “The first H-bomb test was successfully conducted at 10 o’clock on January 6, 2016,” an exuberant Ri thunders, eschewing the more sober approach many news anchors might opt for.
According to a profile of Ri by China’s CCTV in 2012, the newscaster is one of the most-recognized faces in North Korea, aside from government officials. After a brief career as an actress, she began anchoring news broadcasts in 1971 when Korean Central Television (KCTV), the reclusive nation’s only TV station, began ramping up its news operation, The South China Morning Post reports.
KCTV was and still is run by the government and Ri was championed by Kim Il-sung, North Korea’s supreme leader at the time. A 2009 report from a North Korean magazine noted that Kim guided Ri “with warm love and faith” and, according to the South China Morning Post, he was influential in helping the budding news anchor develop her trademark style. Her authoritative voice and unbridled persona resonated with viewers almost immediately and she built an unprecedented career. Apart from one small blip in 2011, she managed to avoid being fired abruptly with no explanation or demoted, like many North Korean broadcasters reportedly have been through the years.
The magazine report went on to note Ri’s “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,” the magazine report, well-versed in North Korea’s penchant for sensationalism, declared.
Ri’s legendary style has been described as “passionate” and “vaguely menacing.”
A 2011 story in The Wall Street Journal summed it up like this: “She speaks in an inimitable style that mixes a kind of breathy quality with whatever the news calls for — exuberance when talking about the dictator’s greatness and stentorian power when talking those awful governments in the U.S. or South Korea.
In 2011, Ri became the subject of international intrigue when she seemingly disappeared from state television abruptly and mysteriously remained off the air for some 50 days, according to a report from The Wall Street Journal. Just as mysteriously, the venerated news anchor abruptly returned to the airwaves on December 19, 2011, to deliver news of Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il’s death. Below she can be seen, clad in all black, telling viewers of “our great comrade” in dramatic fashion, at points, almost completely breaking down. “We make this announcement with great sorrow,” Ri told viewers, fighting back tears. In 1994, she informed North Koreans of Kim Il-sung’s death, a display of the range she would deploy in her style depending on the story.
“She has a very aggressive voice, one that North Koreans would say ‘fills up the screen,’” Kim Yong, a North Korean defector who became a TV personality in South Korea was quoted as saying in a North Korean magazine story on Ri, cited in a story by KPA Journal, a publication that focuses on North 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,” Yong added.
In the 2012 interview with CCTV, Ri said she believed newscasters should tailor their delivery for the nuances of each story.
Ri was seen as the standard against which all other broadcasters in North Korea were measured. Indeed, as Ri’s career in front of the camera wound down, she began mentoring younger women broadcasters just making their debuts on TV.
“Many anchorwomen now are very young and beautiful, and are more suitable to appear before the viewers,” she said in an interview with CCTV before retiring in 2012.
Neither the North Korean government nor KCTV has ever explained her nearly two-month absence in 2011.