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Does Kim Jong Un’s Twisted Sister Now Rule North Korea?

A new book, which argues that the sister of North Korea's leader is the most dangerous woman in the world, fails to convince. Full of conjecture, it sheds little light on the Hermit Kingdom.
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kim joun

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and younger sister Kim Yo Jong © NBC/ nbc.com

December 26, 2023 07:16 EDT
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Not much is known about Kim Yo Jong, the younger sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. She might have been born in 1987 or perhaps 1989. She studied in Switzerland as a child, along with her brother, but no one has reported on her studies there or whether she developed a love of basketball and Eric Clapton like her brothers. She may be married. She might have children.

Kim Yo Jong hasn’t left much of a paper trail. Some splenetic statements about the United States and South Korea from the country’s Propaganda and Agitation Department, which she has run since 2014, have been attributed to her. In August 2022, North Korean television broadcast her first speech, in which she reported on her brother’s case of COVID and lashed out at her country’s enemies.

Other than that, she traveled to South Korea to attend the opening of the Winter Olympics in 2018 and met that year with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. She attended US-North Korean summits in Singapore and Hanoi in 2018 and 2019 and accompanied her brother on his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Russian Far East in September 2023.

There’s hardly enough material on Kim Yo Jong to fill an article. And yet Lee Sung-Yoon, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, has devoted an entire book to her.

The book is less fact, more fiction

To fill in the gaps, Lee has filled his new book with lots of contextual material about her family — grandfather (Kim Il Sung), father (Kim Jong Il), brother (Kim Jong Un), and various other relatives — about North-South relations, and about US diplomatic contacts with Pyongyang. He has tried to intuit her personality from minor gestures made during overseas visits. He has even gone so far as to imagine her thoughts (“Well done, brother, she seemed to be thinking,” he writes at one point after a North-South summit, “On to Washington.”)

On this slender evidence, Lee attempts to build a case that Kim Yo Jong is, as the subtitle of the book states, “the most dangerous woman in the world.” Elsewhere, he claims that “she is unparalleled in the contemporary world” and that she may well take over the helm of the country.

Such overstatements could be dismissed as merely part of an effort to get a publishing contract or, later, book reviews. Unfortunately, Lee’s efforts to play up the importance of his subject leads him into some subtle and not-so-subtle distortions.

Such distortions begin with the cover of the book, which shows the half-profile of an unsmiling Kim Yo Jong, the rest of her face concealed by a block of red on the right side of the cover that showcases the title. This layout suggests that the book, when opened, will provide access to “the rest” of the “most dangerous woman in the world.”

It’s a proper teaser, perhaps, but this representation conceals a more serious transformation. Against the white backdrop of the left side of the cover, the stray hairs that escape Kim’s face make her look disheveled at best and maniacal at worst. It’s a photo that befits the portrait of a woman as a Fury or avenging angel or, as Lee writes in the book, someone who has “mastered the dark arts of psychological manipulation, strategic deception, fake peace overtures, hostage-taking, torture, and ad hominem name-calling.”

But the original photo shows Kim Yo Jong against a black background, where the stray hairs are practically invisible and where she looks like any other unsmiling North Korean official: Stolid rather than psychotic.

Such a manipulation would be justified if the book went on to reveal just how demonically powerful Kim Jong Un’s sister truly is. As a close advisor to her brother, Kim Yo Jong does indeed possess power, at least within the North Korean system. So, too, is she on the record saying rather unpleasant things about the US and South Korea, though she is simply participating in a long tradition of harsh invective coming from Pyongyang.

But is she really “the most dangerous woman in the world”?

An active imagination backed by little corrobaration

Consider this representative passage from the book about the passage of a certain South Korean law restricting the actions of North Korea human rights activists.

The domineering princess had only to snap her fingers and the South’s rulers complied with a vigour and a sophistry, not to mention human rights violations the likes of which shall seldom, if ever, be observed in another advanced democracy.

Lee advances a rather unusual argument that Kim Yo Jong, as a woman, has alternately charmed and bullied South Korean politicians into obeying her will, as if she combines the talents of a dominatrix and a diplomat. “She is not only pretty but also polite!” as Lee sums up the general response of South Korean commentators.

Misogyny aside, let’s take a closer look at two claims in Lee’s sentence: That South Korean officials changed policy in response to Kim Yo Jong and that the policy change amounted to an exceptional human rights violation for an advanced democracy.

The policy in question was the decision in December 2020 by the South Korean parliament to ban the flying of propaganda balloons into North Korea. According to Lee, South Korean politicians were motivated to pass this law because Kim Yo Jong demanded six months earlier that South Korea criminalize the launching of balloons.

Lee neglects to discuss that arguments about these balloons, which often contain Bibles, anti-government flyers, dollars, and thumb drives with South Korean videos, had long been taking place in South Korea. In 2014, when these balloons provoked a huge debate in South Korean society, both the ruling party and the opposition largely agreed that the launches were provocative and to be avoided (how to avoid them remained a point of contention).

The launches were also without question dangerous for those who picked up the airborne packages. Imprisonment and execution are not uncommon for North Koreans caught with Bibles or materials from South Korea.

Moreover, Lee leaves out the fact that the leadership of North and South had agreed in 2018 to stop the psychological warfare the two sides had been waging. Although not state-sponsored, the balloon launches certainly seem to fall into the category of psychological warfare.

So, South Korea’s legislature had plenty of reasons to pass the bill that had nothing to do with Kim Yo Jong and her threats.

Second, was the bill a human rights violation? Pejoratively labeled the “Gag Law” by its opponents, the bill certainly criminalized certain activities. But the balloon activists were effectively engaged in regime-change efforts that endangered the recipients of their messages as well as the efforts at the governmental level to reduce inter-Korean tensions. One could have an interesting argument about whether such activities lie outside the protections of free speech. But to call it a human rights violation “the likes of which shall seldom, if ever, be observed in another advanced democracy” certainly falls into the category of overstatement.

Overstated claims distort reality and shed little light

Other claims in the book seem equally overstated. Lee argues that the fate of the hereditary dictatorship “may yet lie in her hands.” That’s theoretically possible, but Kim Jong Un is thought to have three children who would more likely be his successors. Also, the patriarchal nature of the North Korean system militates against a female ruler.

Elsewhere, Lee argues that “North Korea’s ruling family has never faced any serious existential challenge: not a popular uprising or even organized public protest worthy of the name.” Although it’s true that there hasn’t been any significant uprising in North Korea, the ruling family certainly faced a serious existential challenge when the country’s industry and agriculture collapsed in the early 1990s and a terrifying famine ensued.

Other recent challenges came from within, like a thwarted army uprising in 1995. After the death of Kim Jong Il, his brother-in-law Jang Song Thaek represented a potential China-aligned challenge to the Kim Jong Un leadership. Lee portrays the execution of Jang as the result of a family disagreement, but it was more likely a serious factional dispute within the North Korean system.

Kim Jong Un — and by extension his sister — is undeniably brutal. But Lee is too quick to accept stories of this or that official being executed at their command (some, like diplomat Kim Hyok Chol, were later reported to be alive).

Lee also dismisses the notion that fear of regime change dominates the thinking of North Korean officials. “The Kim rulers have never had any real concern about an imminent US attack, despite playing this up for both domestic and foreign consumption to justify oppression and nuclearization,” he writes. And yet North Korean leaders have often referenced the US bombing of Belgrade during the Kosovo war and the efforts to remove Muammar Qaddafi in Libya as cautionary examples. The Kims might be mistaken about US enthusiasm for regime change, but it’s unlikely that they “never had any real concern” about these threats.

Perhaps the most significant distortion of the book is its portrayal of South Korean and US diplomats as consistently duped by North Korea. It’s certainly true that North Koreans have proven to be cagey negotiators. The government, after all, managed to acquire nuclear weapons even as North Korean officials engaged in denuclearization negotiations. North Koreans have excelled at using the weapons of the weak to make the best of a bad situation.

But engagement between North and South is not only about official conflict de-escalation between the two countries, which has had a mixed record of success (as opposed to the unmitigated failure that Lee suggests). It’s also about helping ordinary North Koreans with humanitarian assistance and running programs — like the divided family reunions and the Kaesong Industrial Complex — that have promoted people-to-people contact.

Kim Yo Jong is a Party functionary with an exalted bloodline, something of importance for North Korea’s ruling elite. But her power is constrained by gender and by the limits of her country’s influence in the world. It would be a mistake to underestimate her. But it is also a mistake to portray her as some demonic puppet master who controls the fate of the Korean peninsula if not the world. Exaggeration and thin speculation, in the end, are no substitute for the details of Kim Yo Jong’s life and ideology, which remain only a little less of a mystery after reading Lee’s book

[Korea Quarterly first published this piece, which FPIF republished.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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