SEOUL—The younger sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is taking center stage in an escalating, and very nasty, campaign against South Korea.
While Numero Uno Kim Jong Un stays out of sight, 32-year-old Kim Yo Jong is putting her name on calls to punish Seoul.
The proximate cause of her orchestrated wrath is the success defectors to the South have had launching balloons to drop leaflets in Kim Jong Un-land that bear heavy-handed messages about his supposed ill health, his egregious human-rights violations, and the general poverty of the North Korean people compared to the luxurious lifestyles of the elite.
“I would like to ask the south [sic] Korean authorities if they are ready to take care of the consequences of evil conduct done by the rubbish-like mongrel dogs,” she said, professing to “detest those who feign ignorance or encourage more than those who move to do others harm.”
A subsequent report by the news agency of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, which is to say the North, declared, “The south [sic] Korean authorities connived at the hostile acts against the DPRK,” and accused Seoul of “trying to dodge heavy responsibility with nasty excuses.”
The North’s Korean Central News Agency cited Kim Yo Jong and Kim Yong Chol as the figures who decided to cut off the fragile connections previously agreed to by the leaders of the two Koreas. In consequence, the dream of reconciliation by South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in appears to be drifting away over the horizon.
North Korea is not only ignoring Moon’s entreaties for dialogue but cutting off channels that Moon proudly established after meeting Kim for what seemed like a landmark summit in the truce village of Panmunjom more than two years ago.
Daily communication between North and South on telephone links between liaison officers, once hailed as symbols of reconciliation, have been terminated, it would seem, on the orders of Kim Yo Jong, although there’s little doubt big brother is backing her up.
It was in her capacity as first vice department director of the central committee of the Workers’ Party that she and the party vice chairman, Kim Yong Chol, decided there was “nothing to discuss” with South Korean “authorities.”
The fact that she played a leading role in the decision despite her minor formal title clearly suggests that she’s operating as a stand-in for her brother, the party chairman, who has delegated broad responsibilities to her while he keeps out of sight.
She now appears to exercise real control over Kim Yong Chol, a former top-level intelligence official and negotiator who lost influence after the failure to get rid of sanctions in three meetings between President Trump and Kim Jong Un, even as the North avoided giving up its nuclear program.
The KCNA report on the cut-off of communications was brimming with rage against the South, even though President Moon’s name was not mentioned.
Seoul’s “authorities connived at the hostile acts against the DPRK,” initials for Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, it said, accusing the South Koreans of “treacherous and cunning behavior.”
South Korean officials have been uncertain how to respond, remaining silent on the cut-off but promising to introduce legislation making the balloon launches illegal. The South’s unification ministry said it’s also drafting charges against two defector groups for sending stuff to North Korea without approval. The balloons often carry U.S. dollar bills and South Korean candy bars as reminders of the good life south of the DMZ.
On a practical level, the cut-off of pro forma hi-and-goodbye calls and sporadic visits to a little used but sparkling liaison office built by South Korea at the shuttered industrial complex at Kaesong, next to Panmunjom, had almost no meaning. But Moon had held high hopes of building on these beginnings, opening up North-South trade and regular visits on a scale not seen since before the Korean War.
Judging from the fierceness of the North Korean rhetoric, renewed dialogue between South and North does not seem likely any time soon, and any hopes that Kim Yo Jong would soften her brother’s approach seem misplaced, given the role she’s playing at the center of the standoff. Indeed, she might be even tougher than the brother, who may be suffering from the effects of diabetes brought on by obesity, heavy drinking, and smoking.
Adding to concerns about the rhetoric from the North was the use of the word “enemy” in referring to the South. The KCNA report on the cut-off of communications said that Kim Yo Jong and Kim Yong Chol had “stressed that the work toward the south should thoroughly turn into the one against the enemy.”
The two “discussed phased plans,” said the report, “in order to make the betrayers and riff-raff pay for their crimes.” It was in that spirit, it said, that they “gave an instruction to completely cut off all the communication and liaison lines between the north and the south.” (North Korea, viewing all Korea, North and South, as one country, uses the lower case in “north and “south.”)
None of the reports attacked Moon or other South Korean leaders by name, leaving open the slight possibility that some give-and-take might be possible, but the implications were worrying.
“South Koreans have been have been sending leaflets across the DMZ for many years,” said David Straub, a former senior diplomat at the U.S. embassy in Seoul and on the Korea desk at the State Department, “so it’s clear that North Korea’s complaints about them are only a pretext for something else it has in mind.”
One of the “riff raff” whom Kim Yo Jong detests is Ji Seong-ho, who lost a leg when caught under a train during an attempt to defect from North Korea before he finally managed to escape. Ji, elected to the South Korean national assembly last month, totally believes in bombarding North Korea with leaflets.
“The distribution of leaflets to North Korea is a human rights issue that secures the right of North Koreans to know,” he argues. “The campaign to distribute leaflets to North Korea is a human rights movement recognized by the international community.” The point is to “inform North Koreans who are oppressed by the North’s hereditary dictatorship and trampling on their human rights. We need to save our compatriots.”