Earlier this year, Kim Jong Un’s sister emerged for the first time as a spokesperson in her own name and right. In March she issued two statements, both in the broad area of foreign affairs.
First up, on March 3 she sneered at and scolded the Blue House, for having the temerity to mildly deplore what she dismissed as a routine DPRK “firepower strike drill” the day before.
Routine? No ma’am. As it turned out, this kicked off North Korea’s busiest month ever for missile tests. Three more launches followed, with a total of nine projectiles fired: on March 2, 8, 20, and 27. All were short-range. No prizes for guessing whom those threaten most.
So the South Korean government can hardly be blamed for having a view on this. Yet Ms. Kim’s harsh message to Moon Jae-in amounted, in effect, to saying STFU.
That’s no way to treat a man who has worked tirelessly for peace on the peninsula – and who personally hosted her in 2018, in Seoul and Pyeonchang. She was all smiles back then.
Now it’s snarls for Moon, but still smiles for Donald Trump. Kim Yo Jong’s second statement came on March 22: thanking the U.S. President for a hitherto undisclosed offer of unspecified aid to fight the coronavirus. Pyongyang politely declined.
There were veiled hints of sarcasm, but the overall tone was civil – in sharp contrast to her lambasting of fellow Koreans.
I wrote about all this here at NK News, also suggesting that this enhanced role could mean Ms. Kim is being set up as a potential successor. That scenario seemed hypothetical at the time.
But then in April we had her brother’s Great Disappearing Act. Global media were suddenly awash in speculation. All eyes were on the First Sister as seemingly first in line to take over.
Kim Jong Un came back, this time. And as he cut the big red ribbon to open the new Sunchon Phosphatic Fertilizer Factory, there on the dais too was Kim Yo Jong – but subtly changed.
As NK News’s Jeongmin Kim and Min Chao Choy noted on Twitter, Kim – who can hardly have been unaware that half the world was talking about her – had clearly altered her image.
Old men should probably keep out of girl talk, but I certainly saw this as a softening in terms of her hairstyle and makeup. She can sometimes appear quite austere – but not at Sunchon.
Well, the new soft look didn’t last long. Kim Yo Jong is back to snarling, or worse.
Her first appearance in DPRK media since the Sunchon outing a month ago came on June 4, with a fresh public statement: her third this year. KCNA headlined it: “Kim Yo Jong Rebukes S. Korean Authorities for Conniving at Anti-DPRK Hostile Act of ‘Defectors from North’”.
WATCHING THE DEFECTORS
It’s no secret North Korea hates defectors and activists launching balloons laden with anti-Kim regime leaflets across the DMZ. Truth to tell, South Korea doesn’t much like this either.
Successive governments – not just Moon Jae-in, but his predecessor Park Geun-hye – have tried to curb such activities. Most of the public is uninterested at best, while locals living near the border complain that these antics are bad for tourism – and are unnerved when the KPA sometimes threatens to shoot down the balloons.
Under 2018’s inter-Korean accords these acts are now notionally banned. Article 1.3 of the “Agreement on the Implementation of the Historic Panmunjom Declaration in the Military Domain,” which sets various no-fly zones for different types of aircraft and the like, forbids “hot-air balloons” within 25km of the Military Demarcation Line (MDL). Helium balloons aren’t quite the same thing, but no doubt this was the intent.
So no doubt it is galling to Pyongyang when the usual suspects defy this deal and carry out a launch, as they recently did. Some Northern remonstration would be perfectly justified – just as the Blue House was right to protest at North Korea’s missile launches in March.
But wow, just read what Kim Yo Jong wrote. Harsher even than in March, she came out with all guns blazing – shooting contempt in all directions.
Most of it was aimed at “defectors” (the scare-quotes are KCNA’s, for some reason; although there has been a debate in the South too whether this is the best word, and it’s now officially regarded as outmoded).
The DPRK routinely attacks defectors as “human scum.” Ms. Kim uses that phrase not once, not twice, but three times. Just in case we don’t get the message, she also calls them “mongrel dogs”: again, three separate times. Not to mention “riff-raff” and other choice epithets.
Besides repetitively spitting insults, Kim Yo Jong is also an intellectual snob. Listen to this:
“What matters is that those human scum hardly worth their value as human beings had the temerity to fault our supreme leadership and cite ‘nuclear issue’…
“It is height of irony. Those fool (sic) who are almost illiterate wanted to talk about ‘nuclear issue’ though they know no concept about it. This is like ‘a shop-boy near a temple chanting a sutra untaught.’”
If defectors were really ‘illiterate,’ that doesn’t say much for the DPRK’s vaunted education system. Nor indeed does Ms. Kim’s, or rather KCNA’s, garbled English.
ELITIST AND RACIST
What Kim means, of course, is that defectors have no business having any opinion about the nuclear issue. The masses are there to do as they’re told, never to think for themselves.
What a giveaway. North Korea claims to be socialist, but this is unabashed elitism.
For that matter, ‘mongrel dog’ as an insult is rampant racism. Who says pure breeds are best? North Korea does.
As BR Myers first showed in his path-breaking book “The Cleanest Race,” DPRK ideology is explicitly race-based. Remember what they called Barack Obama?
Having blasted defectors, Kim Yo Jong turns her fire on “the south Korean authorities” whom she accuses of conniving at the balloon launches: “It is hard to understand how such sordid and wicked act of hostility is tolerated in the south at a time as now.”
Come on. She surely knows the cat and mouse games that activists play with the police. They give no warning, and it’s impractical to monitor every possible launch point along the DMZ.
Ignoring all that, Ms. Kim warns the South to “clear their house of rubbish,” or else they “will be forced to pay a dear price.” She spells it out. If the Southern authorities don’t take action:
“…they had better get themselves ready for possibility of the complete withdrawal of the already desolate Kaesong Industrial Park following the stop to tour of Mt. Kumgang, or shutdown of the north-south joint liaison office whose existence only adds to trouble, or the scrapping of the north-south agreement in military field which is hardly of any value.”
Again, note the tone. Kaesong is indeed “already desolate,” and I’ve written before here about Mount Kumgang.
But what a bizarrely sarcastic jibe at the joint liaison office. What “trouble” does it cause? – especially now that it’s temporarily closed due to coronavirus concerns.
Ms. Kim’s harsh message to Moon Jae-in amounted, in effect, to saying STFU
Scrapping the military agreement would be a highly retrograde step, even though this accord doesn’t begin to address underlying security issues like weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
Overall, what is striking is how lightly Kim Yo Jong is prepared to junk the entire edifice of peace-building and prior joint ventures. How can any South Korean read this and still believe the Northern regime is, or ever was, a sincere and committed dialogue partner?
Yet she knows her mark. I keep hoping against hope that one day, bridling at these insults, the Blue House worm will turn. In my mind I write speeches for Moon Jae-in, whose tenor is:
“No, YOU listen for a change. Jesus, I have had it with you ungrateful wretches. I worked my butt off and spent a shedload of political capital, getting you your summit with Trump.
“I did all I could, and I’ll keep doing all I can. What is it with you guys? Can’t you see straight? Do you really want the conservatives back in power? Maybe then you’ll miss me. Good grief.”
All fantasy, of course. In the topsy-turvy real world, the Moon administration has jumped to do Kim Yo Jong’s bidding.
Just hours after her threats, Yonhap had a headline: “S. Korea to legislate ban on anti-Pyongyang leaflet campaign after N.K. threats.”
At present no law specifically forbids balloon launches, so the Moon administration plans to plug that loophole. No details were given, but the ruling Democratic Party’s large majority in the newly elected National Assembly will make passing legislation much easier than before.
This raises troubling questions. What about freedom of speech? Needless to say, Kim Yo Jong trashed that too, sneering at “the pretext of ‘freedom of individuals’ and ‘freedom of expression.’”
Looks as if she won’t have to worry. Moon might, though, since his eagerness to march so promptly to Pyongyang’s tune has encouragingly sparked much criticism.
Why Moon persists with a patently failed peace process, when his putative dialogue partner is frankly and frequently contemptuous of him and all his works, is a mystery too profound to ponder here. I’ve broached it before, and no doubt we’ll come back to it in the future.
Meanwhile, what about the Kim Yo Jong brand? The softer or at least svelte counterpoint to her hard man brother? Maybe that was all a fantasy.
Joshua Stanton of One Free Korea, whom I quoted somewhat critically in my earlier article on Ms. Kim, was perhaps right all along to see arrogance and cruelty in her face and demeanor.
Yet you’d think it would have been much smarter for Ms. Kim, now world-famous, to keep cultivating her soft side, even if it was all a con. The world would have lapped it up, so maybe it’s as well she pricked the bubble before we all deluded ourselves with wishful thinking.
For that matter, you’d think it would have been smart for her brother to at least go through the motions of buttering up the ever-willing Moon Jae-in, rather than dissing him so completely.
But you’d think wrong. They’re North Korea; they don’t care. And they say so, again and again.
They show us, openly and without shame, what their real attitudes and values are. We have no excuse for not taking heed.
Which is why the balloons should continue to fly, as I very much hope they will.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Views expressed in Opinion articles are exclusively the authors’ own and do not represent those of NK News.
Aidan Foster-Carter is Honorary Senior Research Fellow in Sociology and Modern Korea at Leeds University in England. Educated at Eton and Oxford, he taught sociology at the Universities of Hull, Dar es Salaam and Leeds from 1971 to 1997. Having followed Korean affairs since 1968, since 1997 he has been a full-time analyst and consultant on Korea: writing, lecturing and broadcasting for academic, business and policy audiences in the UK and worldwide.