Heart of a king… How gender issues could influence a Supreme Leader Kim Yo Jong.
“I know I have the body of a weak and feeble woman, but I have the heart and the stomach of a king, and a King of England at that!” These once famous words of Elizabeth I, addressed to her troops at Tilbury as they awaited invasion by the Spanish Armada, have unsurprisingly fallen out of favour. But experts we spoke with believe that the sentiment expressed here could be especially relevant to a female leader of North Korea. When Kim Jong Un disappeared from public view for three weeks, speculation turned to the vital question of succession. The most likely candidate identified by our experts was Kim Yo Jong, his younger sister. So who is this potential Iron Lady of the east, who could become the first female dictator of the 21st century?
While North Korea has had powerful women, who have wielded influence in the past, she is the first one with such a public role. She is commonly seen with Jong Un at public events, party gatherings and even visits to military sites. Her specific title and ranks are not that prominent- she is First Deputy Director of the Propaganda and Education Department and is ranked number 28 in the Party’s official hierarchy.
Soo Kim, the CIA’s former chief analyst for North Korean issues notes, “we know little about Yo Jong’s political views. We do know she studied abroad in Switzerland, so she does have Western exposure. But that is unlikely to make her any more favourable to the United States or the rest of the world. When Kim Jong Un became leader, the hope was that this foreign education would make him more open minded than his father. If anything, he was even more ruthless than his predecessors.”
Her major advantages in the struggle for succession are that she holds her brothers’ favour, and she comes from the Paektu bloodline. North Korean propaganda has always stressed the semi-divine nature of its rulers. A founding myth is that Kim Jong Il was born to his father Kim Il Sung at a secret guerrilla training camp in Mt Paektu while his troops were fighting the Japanese. The date is commemorated in North Korea as the ‘Day of the Shining Star’ and is one of the most important holidays in the calendar. While most observers believe he was actually born in the Soviet Union in a year earlier, this mythical connection to the birthplace of the Korean people has been used as a powerful propaganda tool. The totalitarian regime’s legitimacy derives from the worship of the Kim family. Having another stakeholder from outside the family assume power, even a respected general, could open the door for pluralism”.
“Because she is a woman, her threat perception will be heightened.” Kim told us. She will face an uphill struggle to be taken as a serious wielder of power by North Korea’s military leaders.
Just a few years into his rule, the young Jong Un was decided to assert his authority on his party and country by having his powerful uncle executed for sedition. It is feared Kim Yo Jong may be faced to take even more radical measures to assuage her potential domestic enemies. This is especially relevant as North Korea has frequently used gender as an important political consideration and propaganda weapon.
North Korea remains a deeply conservative and patriarchal society. Traditional monarchies in the West follow rules of primogeniture, meaning that the first-born child (in some cases, only the first-born son), is the heir to the throne. However, Kim Jong Il passed over his oldest son, Kim Yong Chol, reportedly because he believed him to be ‘weak’ and ‘effeminate’.
Similarly, North Korean propaganda has frequently used the gender of a foreign leader to attack leaders of hostile countries. In particular, it described former South Korean president Park Geun-hye with a number of ugly slurs, variously calling her a “comfort woman” and “crafty prostitute” when she met with Barack Obama, and upping the ante by calling her an “insane old bitch” for her criticism of North Korea’s nuclear testing.
Kim Yo Jong would not be the subject of such intense speculation if it were not for her regime’s diplomatic trump card, its nuclear weapons. In a domestic context, they can be used to show her excellent leadership against hostile foreigners. Externally, it drastically increases the countries bargaining power over issues such as sanctions and sovereignty. “If anything”, Kim concludes “Kim Yo Jong may be even more ruthless and tougher than her brother.”
We can’t actually know whether her gender will have any impact on her actions as a leader, as we have precious little precedent to judge her on. While women have exercised power in authoritarian regimes before, it has typically been behind the scenes as an influence on a husband or a son. Typical examples would be Mao’s fourth wife Jiang Qing, a driving force behind the Cultural Revolution. Another would be Nexhmije Hoxha, the ‘Lady Macbeth’ of Communist Albania. But there have been no women in modern history that fit the typical profile of the dictator that Yo Jong would be. Some historians cite Indira Gandhi’s ‘Emergency’ period in India, although she gave up power willingly at the end of this. No one expects that to happen in North Korea.
Elizabeth’s speech did not end by simply dismissing criticism of her sex. She continued a theme that would be very familiar to the North Korean heir apparent. She threatened foreign power with designs on her country saying, “think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm.” Despite being centuries apart, and ruling over very different countries, Yo Jong will feel great pressure to prove that, despite being a woman, she can ‘defend’ North Korea from the countries that its propaganda has demonized, especially the United States.
While we in the West may consider the gender, stereotypes described in this speech as antiquated, they could aptly sum up the conundrum that Kim Yo Jong would face if she ascended to the throne in Pyongyang. So, what will a Kim Yo Jong leadership really look like? It is not something anyone except the tight inner circle of North Korean leadership could hope to predict. But the fate of peace on the Asian continent may depend on the answer to this question.
Written by Nick Mutch Additional notes by Soo Kim and Michael Hilliard.