“The Sister. The extraordinary story of Kim Yo Jong, the most powerful woman in North Korea” by Sung-Yoon Lee (published by Macmillan)
Death at a click of the fingers
In case readers might justifiably wonder how an author goes about writing what is the first biography of a little-known and shadowy figure in an inhuman country wholly unlike any other, author Sung-Yoon Lee has the credentials. He has taught Korean history, written on the peninsula’s politics for numerous leading publications, advised senior US officials including the President, and been an expert witness at US House of Representatives hearings on North Korea policy.
Kim Yo Jong is the feared sister of the Supreme Leader, Kim Jong Un, who took power in 2011. Second in authority only to him, she is the despotic nation’s chief censor, spokeswoman, mocker and threat-and-malice dispenser. She is reported to have ordered several executions of high-ranking government officials simply for “getting on her nerves”.
She is her brother’s confidant and is tipped to be his successor. Thus at the time of writing, the fate of the “Mount Paektu Bloodline”, may yet lie in her hands.
This is how the direct descendants of North Korea’s dynastic founder Kim Il Sung style themselves. They are named for the fabled mountain home of the military camps from which – according to the official North Korean narrative – Kim Il Sung had finally vanquished the Japanese colonialists in 1945, before founding the North Korean state in 1948.
In fact, Sung-Yoon Lee writes, the nation is built on bald-faced lies, that Kim Il Sung liberated Korea from Japan and defeated the US in the Korean War. It is a family of narcissism, Machiavellianism and psycopathy in spades, trampling on the people and enslaving millions while enjoying a sybaritic lifestyle.
Although cloaked under the trappings of democracy, with a constitution that purportedly protects all basic rights, North Korea is a cruel, godless state where people live in oppression and poverty under the yoke of a ruthless self-perpetuating dctatorship.
In reverse order, Ms. Kim’s predecessors are her brother, father and grandfather. Kim Il Sung was a small-time, guerrilla whose supposedly heroic feats against the oppressors were hyper-inflated by propaganda that declared him the greatest patriot and war hero bar none.
In North Korea no religious freedom or deity is allowed and Kim Il Sung is an infallible God. His legacy is so sacred that it cannot be challenged. According to the mythology, Kim Jong Il, who would become the second-generation leader, was born in a wooden hut on a foothill during his father’s superhuman struggle, but the truth is he entered the world on a Soviet army base in 1941.
Kim Il Sung ruled the country from its establishment in 1948 until his death in 1994, when Kim Jong Il became Supreme Leader until his own sudden death from cardiac arrest in 2011. His son Kim Jong Un took over just three weeks shy of his 28th birthday after his older brother, Jong Chol, was passed over as successor. Kim Jong Un reportedly has three children, a son and two daughters, but he suffers from heart disease, diabetes and obesity, and these are just his known ailments. So if he were to die before his children grow into adulthood, his sister Kim Yo Jong apparently stands as heir to the throne.
At least this would be so until well into the 2030s, says the author: “In the event of such a sudden power transition, whether North Korea’s first female Supreme Leader chooses to settle for the role of regent until her nephew or niece comes of age, or decides to rule for life – the rest of her life and for her own life – is a question to which there is no clear answer.”
This then is the Mount Paektu Bloodline to date. While her brother rules like an absolute monarch, Kim Yo Jong is not a mere royal sibling without real power, like Jong Chol. Since at least 2014 she had run the nation’s powerful Propaganda and Agitation Department. And now she is one of thew powerful leaders in the contemporary world, with the nation’s foreign policy at her will and unfettered access to her nuclear button-controlling brother.
As the youngest child of Kim Jong Il, she was doted on lavishly since her earliest days. Both her father and mother addressed her as “My Sweet Princess Yo Jong” or “Princess Yo Jong”. Her imperiousness, authority and self-confidence were bred from an early age, and her father had long recongised her talents and political acumen.
Due to a peculiarity in North Korean political culture, in which official ranks and titles often belie the true hierarchy and power dynamics, and the lives of cabinet members and four-star generals often hang on the whim of a real power holder of a much lower rank, her position was unique: even if she were ranked at the bottom of the 250-strong Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, she could order the execution of any one of them, except one, her brother.
In 2020 she assumed more powerful roles, and effectively became “Deputy Dear Leader”. She took over as the de facto head of the Department of Organization and Guidance, North Korea’s central locus of political power, overseeing all daily decisions on key personnel matters, including in the military. In this most powerful department, political surveillance, punishment and commendation were her prerogatives.
“In theory she could decide who was monitored, demoted, promoted, punished, rewarded, banished or even tied up to be executed in the town square or in a sports stadium behind closed doors,” says her biographer. In short, as a living princess of the Mount Paektu Bloodline, she is immune to the vicissitudes of political appointments and dismissals of which the rest of the country’s officialdom must live in fear.
Astonishingly, author Sung-Yoon Lee speculates that on the evidence so far, she may prove fiercer and more ruthless than even her brother, their father or their grandfather. She has berated the South Korean President as impudent, shameless, deranged, a frightened dog, an imbecile and a foolish man who put his neck into the noose of pro-US flunkeyism.
Now 35, she spews sexist and racist attacks. Russia is supported in the war against Ukraine.
It actually gets worse, the book shows, as “princess-watchers” from Tokyo to Washington are duped when she decides to put on a more pleasant face to the world, and they see this slightly built young woman with her simple taste in fashion, royal comportment, modesty, imperiousness, self-confidence, demureness and Mona Lisa smirk-smile.
Perhaps Fred Warmbier deserves the last word. His son Otto was sentenced to 15 years hard labour in Pyongyang in 2016 for trying to steal a propaganda poster from his hotel. For this prank, he was tortured during 17 months of captivity before being released in 2017, brain dead. The North Koreans got rid of the vegetative Otto by returning him to the US, where he died soon after aged 22.
Fred wanted to confront the North Koreans when they were in Seoul but the South Koreans wouldn’t let him. “I looked at her [Kim Yo Jong],” he said. “She is evil, all the way through. She is a murderer, a criminal, a thug. She just happens to be a woman.”