Kim Yo Jong: The girl who would be Kim IV
No matter the fate of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, who has not been seen in public in two weeks, the rumors swirling around the world about his health and morbidity are a reminder: Death will have its day and, if the day comes in the near future, it will be a mixed blessing.
It will be good news for the nation’s presumptive new Great Leader, Kim Jong Un’s sister and confidante, Kim Yo Jong. In another 20 years, her brother’s son, by then in his twenties, surely would succeed dad upon his death. Kim Jong Un himself took power at age 27 following his father’s death in 2011. By then, the thirtysomething Yo Jong today would be in her fifties and almost certainly considered ineligible for the top leadership.
But for the long-suffering North Korean people — and the rest of the world — it would be more bad news. Here’s why:
Shakespeare’s character Cassius, in “Julius Caesar,” is one of the conspirators in the assassination of the man known as “dictator in perpetuity.” Upon Caesar’s fall, Cassius intones, “Why, he that cuts off twenty years of his life/ Cuts off so many years of fearing death.” Were the North Korean tyrant to die long before he is able to fully groom his son as heir, it would be a pity for Ri Sol Ju, Kim Jong Un’s wife, and their children. At the same time, thanks to a resolute regimen of hard drinking, chain smoking, and hyper-inflated caloric intake, Kim would have won merciful respite from prolonged paranoia about mutiny and assassination. At last, he could rest in peace, forever lying in state next to his father and grandfather in the lavish Mt. Kumsu Mausoleum as well-wishers frequently pay their respects.
In a post-Kim III future, Ms. Kim, North Korea’s unprecedented female Great Leader IV, like any other national leader, will be driven by a desire to leave her own legacy. To look to the future, she will look to the past. The implications are ominous.
Each of Ms. Kim’s predecessors — in reverse order, her brother, father and grandfather — has carved out an indelible legacy in calculated external threats and extreme internal repression. Arguably, her brother surpassed their dad in studied acts of cruelty and nuclear extortion. His introduction of stadium public executions via anti-aircraft machine gun and flamethrower is an innovative landmark in psychological terror unlikely to be surpassed anytime soon. The murder of his half brother, Kim Jong Nam, with a deadly VX agent in an international airport in Kuala Lumpur in 2017 is one for the pages of history. And Kim Jong Un’s nuclear blackmail policy, punctuated by three intercontinental ballistic missile tests and a thermonuclear test in 2017, reached new heights in Pyongyang’s Ponzi scheme as various leaders showered him with summit pageantry the following year. History will not forget his achievements.
Dad was no laggard himself. Undoubtedly, dad surpassed grandpa in creative mass killing as well as nuclear policy. Not only did Kim Jong Il kill upwards of 1 million of his people during the famine in the 1990s with his inhumane policy of “knowingly causing prolonged starvation,” thus, deepening and broadening the concept and legal definition of “extermination” under the International Criminal Court’s Rome Statute definition of “crimes against humanity” (Article 7, Paragraph 2b), but he also crossed the nuclear Rubicon with his nation’s first nuclear test in 2006 — and milked from the U.S. alone $1.3 billion worth of food and fuel in doing it. Therefore, Kim Jong Il’s “Great Leader” status, together with his son’s, shall forever remain incontrovertible.
State founder and grandfather Kim Il Sung, as may be Yo Jong’s destiny, was in his thirties when he took the reins of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Young, ambitious and adept in the art of deception, the “Original Great Leader” traveled to Moscow in March and April 1950 and sought Joseph Stalin’s approval and support for his campaign to invade South Korea and unify the peninsula. On the thorny question of “what if the U.S. intervenes,” Kim truthfully said all indications were to the contrary and that the U.S. would denounce the invasion but do nothing about it. Furthermore, Kim untruthfully reassured Stalin that China’s Mao Zedong had his back in the event the U.S. entered the war. Therefore, Stalin didn’t need to send Soviet troops. In May, Kim traveled to Beijing and sold the same story to Mao — that is, Comrade Stalin will send Soviet troops if the U.S. intervenes; hence, Chairman Mao doesn’t need to concern himself with dispatching Chinese troops.
For good measure, Kim Il Sung also reached out to South Korea for peace talks on the eve of the invasion. On June 7, 1950, just 18 days before invading the South, Kim proposed to hold a pan-Korean general election from Aug. 5-8 and establish a “unified supreme legislative body.” Kim added an intoxicating finishing touch by proposing to hold the first session of the supreme legislative body in Seoul on Aug. 15, “the fifth anniversary of liberation from Japanese imperialist rule,” as he kindly explained. On June 19, just six days before starting the Korean War, Kim made a more refined and detailed proposal. He even mentioned sending a North Korean delegation to Seoul or receiving “the delegation of the south Korean ‘National Assembly’ in Pyongyang on June 21, 1950.”
Unparalleled cruelty toward their own people, strategic deception and manifold crimes against other states in the region and beyond, and a willingness to risk war and resort to lethal attacks on South Koreans and Americans — these are the North Korean dynasty’s main instruments of regime preservation. If she becomes leader, Kim Yo Jong will have to employ them repeatedly, especially in the early stage of her rule, with intensity. Both her brother’s and father’s early reigns were marked by vicious purges, reinforced internal repression, and calculated external threats.
Would the hardened old guards with access to big guns “accept” a female Dear Leader? Or would they “use” her as a puppet and form a “collective leadership” with the military as the locus of power in the post-Kim Jong Un era?
The latter part of the question was raised misguidedly and widely when Kim Jong Un took power in 2011. Collective leadership or power-sharing is without precedent in North Korea — or Korea, for that matter. Unlike in neighboring Japan, where deliberation and consensus-seeking within an oligarchy have been a prominent political feature, Korean political history presents a rigidly top-down unitary power structure. Needless to say, North Korea has taken this model to an entirely new level.
The purported quasi-divine nature of the core Kim family, in which near omnipotence runs deep and across generations, buttressed by the state’s vast instruments of terror (secret police, gulags, summary executions, torture, disappearance of persons), make the supreme leader — whether male or female, young or old — irreproachable. It is exceedingly unlikely that the top brass, with all the privileges they enjoy in the cult-driven Kim dynasty, will band together and challenge a new Dear Respected Leader. The stakeholders today are much more likely to do their best to remain stakeholders tomorrow under Kim IV. There is no compelling reason that Kim Yo Jong’s bid for dictatorship-in-perpetuity would be derailed. When she takes over, she will rule with an iron fist in an attempt to keep her own mortality at bay.
As for Kim Yo Jong’s prospects for longevity, no one can predict when death again will have its day, but, as Marc Antony in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar says at the outset of his funeral oration, “The evil that men do lives after them.” Kim Jong Un’s evil shall long live after him, as will Kim Yo Jong’s — unless the U.S. shakes off the illusion of playing nice, remembers history, and finally firms up and bankrupts the evil kleptocracy she will inherit.
Sung-Yoon Lee is Kim Koo-Korea Foundation Professor of Korean Studies and assistant professor at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, and faculty associate at the U.S.-Japan Program, the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Harvard University. Follow him on Twitter @SungYoonLee1.