In a 915-word statement, Kim Jong Un’s powerful little sister Kim Yo Jong has offered a chilling warning to the U.S. over computer-based drills being conducted by American and South Korean forces this week.
“We wait to take this opportunity to warn the new U.S. administration trying hard to give off powder smell in our land,” she said on Tuesday, evoking the stench of gunpowder and the vague threat of war. “If [the U.S.] wants to sleep in peace for [the] coming four years, it had better refrain from causing a stink at its first step.”
The warning comes as a calculated attempt to drive a wedge between the U.S. and South Korea while American officials lobby for support against the North in Tokyo and Seoul.
Kim Yo Jong, who often voices North Korea’s toughest rhetoric on behalf of her brother, sought to intimidate South Korean President Moon Jae-in by threatening to abrogate the deal they reached in April 2018, in which they agreed to quash military tensions and honor a buffer zone between the two Koreas on land and sea.
As likely the second most influential leader in North Korea, Yo Jong focused her attack on annual joint exercises by U.S. and South Korean forces. “They dared to send us a serious challenge,” she said. In her statement, which was broadcast in English by Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency, Yo Jong warned of “the consequences to be entailed by the war drill.”
South Korea has pleaded with North Korea to see the war games as harmless, describing them as mere “command post exercises” conducted on computers.
None of the 28,500 U.S. troops are engaging in “field exercises” involving movements of large numbers of troops, supported by fighter planes and warships off shore, on vast stretches of land below the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas. Such large-scale maneuvers were last conducted with South Koreans four years ago before then-President Donald Trump agreed to cancel them at his June 2018 summit with Jong Un in Singapore.
Moon was conspicuously silent on the implications of the exercises and Kim Yo Jong’s statement, leaving it to South Korea Defense Minister Suh Wook to call the criticism “regrettable.” The South, he warned, was “prepared against any type of contingency” against North Korean “provocations.”
In fact, Yo Jong carefully avoided any sign that North Korea was ready to translate words into open conflict as her brother remained focused on economic problems exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and U.S. and UN sanctions.
Rather, her remarks were clearly intended to persuade South Koreans of the danger of the U.S.-South Korean alliance and the bleak prospects for North-South dialogue that Moon is desperately seeking as his popularity dwindles.
The South Koreans “should realize that they have chosen a wrong deed of crossing the ‘red line’ by themselves,” she said. “Their idea of seeking confrontation with the compatriots in the north and hostile behavior toward the latter, which festered to be a chronic disease, have reached an incurable state.”
Under the circumstances, “We have nothing to talk with them,” she said. “War drill and hostility can never go with dialogue and cooperation.”
David Maxwell, a retired U.S. army special forces colonel who served five tours in South Korea, said “the most obvious point of this message is simply to drive a wedge” between the U.S. and South Korea. “The timing is perfect”–just as the U.S. secretary of state, Antony Blinken, and the defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, arrive in Seoul on their first visits to the region in those roles.
By issuing the statement under her own name, Yo Jong has affirmed her powerful role in the country, despite the fact that she is not a formal member of the politburo of the Workers’ Party, over which her brother reigns supreme as general secretary. KCNA identified her as vice department director of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea, for which she controls the party’s omnipotent organization and guidance department with tentacles throughout the regime and the country.
The statement “serves to reinforce Yo Jong's legitimacy as a senior member of the Kim Family regime,” said Maxwell, and “could contribute to the legitimacy of eventual succession should something happen” to big brother.
Michael Madden, who specializes in the ins and outs of North Korean leadership, sees “her role as the gatekeeper for Jong Un” as “intact” despite her exclusion from the politburo. Her exclusion “does not necessarily portend her complete absence from this powerful organization,” he wrote in 38 North, an authoritative review of events in North Korea. “Even though she lacks the alternate member credential,” he said, she remains within the regime’s “formal hierarchy.”
Yo Jong heaped derision on South Korea while paying scant attention to the Americans. “Accustomed to paying lip-service,” South Korean authorities “are billing the drill as an ‘annual ' and ‘defensive’ computer-based simulation drills,” she said, adding that it was “ridiculous, impudent and stupid” for them to call on the North to exercise “flexible judgment” and “understanding”–two words that South Korean officials have been using to appease the North.
Without mentioning Moon or anyone else by name, she said that “they were all born with stupidity and have become the dumb and deaf bereft of judgment as they always sit on the fence.”
Curiously, Yo Jong was downright circumspect in her remarks about the role of the U.S. under President Joe Biden, whose election was barely noted in North Korean media. Like Moon, Biden was left unmentioned.
“Whatever and however the south (sic) Korean authorities may do in the future under their master's instructions, those warm spring days three years ago, which they desire so much, won't come easily again,” she added, in reference to the agreement signed by Moon and Jong Un in April 2018 when Kim stepped across the North-South line at Panmunjom.
The statement served as a fitting prelude to Wednesday talks in Seoul at which Blinken and Austin will be meeting their South Korean counterparts, Foreign Minister Chung Eui-yong and Defense Minister Suh. The visit will also mark the signing of the deal under which the South has agreed to raise its contribution to U.S. forces and bases here by $1.04 billion, up by nearly 13.9 percent, after Trump had disrupted the alliance by demanding the South pay $5 billion.
Blinken and Austin face obstacles, though, in the form of President Moon’s pursuit of dialog with the North. He has discouraged intense exercises that U.S. commanders see as vital to keep forces ready “to fight tonight.'' That's a slogan rarely heard these days while the U.S. has warned of mounting dangers from North Korea and stuck to U.S. demands for the North to give up its nuclear program.