Kim Jong Un’s Little Sister Is Back as North Korea’s Top Attack Dog
Kim Yo Jong’s power continues to grow as she delivers a withering threat to South Korea’s top female official just as a senior American diplomat arrived in the country.
SEOUL—Kim Jong Un’s kid sister has been thrust once more into the spotlight after launching North Korea’s latest rhetorical attack on their neighbors to the south.
Kim Yo Jong, 32, four years younger than her brother, called out South Korea’s top female official for casting doubt on Pyongyang’s claims of zero cases of COVID-19 among its impoverished people.
In an attempt at intimidation amid a long period of frigid relations between South and North Korea, Kim Yo Jong warned that Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha “might have to pay dearly” for having said it was “hard to believe” North Korean claims about the disease.
Kim’s sister, who personally ordered the destruction in June of a North-South liaison office above the North-South line, said Kang’s “reckless remarks” showed she was “too eager to further chill the frozen relations between the north and south of Korea.”
Although Kim Yo Jong had lapsed into silence of late, her latest outburst shows she’s very much in favor while still in charge of the multi-tentacled Organization and Guidance Department with its claws in every aspect of North Korea’s power structure.
As the source of such an important statement, she belied rumors that she may have been repressed by her brother—perhaps in some form of sibling rivalry—after having spoken out quite strongly against South Korea after the detonation of the liaison office, which had been built at South Korean expense.
The need for little sister to maintain a leadership role, if subordinate to her brother, is all the more urgent considering that Kim’s health has long been a matter of concern and conjecture. Sure, he’s alive, but his weight, along with his smoking and drinking habits, raises the question of how long he can carry on effectively while marshaling forces to combat COVID-19.
Significantly, Kim Yo Jong’s statement was carried in English by Pyongyang’s Korea Central News Agency just as the top U.S. official on North Korea, Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun, is visiting Seoul trying to revive somewhat frayed relations between the U.S. and its South Korean ally.
On what will probably be his last mission here, Biegun issued the standard statements designed to upset North Korea just as Pyongyang tries to drive a wedge between the U.S. and South Korea. As always, Biegun said the U.S.-Korean alliance was the “linchpin” for the defense of the region before meeting South Korea’s nuclear envoy, Lee Do-hoon, to talk about dealing with the North’s nuclear program.
Such talk inevitably infuriates North Korea, which has accused South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in of toadying to the U.S. while making a show of searching for North-South reconciliation through dialogue. Moon has met Kim Jong Un four times, but North Korea has ignored his pleas for further talks for more than a year and also rejected South Korea’s offer of several million dollars in aid for people hard hit not only by COVID-19 but also by a series of typhoons on top of sanctions.
Kang, at a forum in Bahrain, outraged North Korea’s leadership by remarking sarcastically, “All signs are the regime is very intensely focused on controlling the disease that they say they do not have.” One effect of the illness, she said, was to have made North Korea “more closed, very top-down decision-making process.” There was, she added, “very little debate on their measures in dealing with COVID-19.”
Although Kim Yo Jong’s outraged rejoinder undoubtedly reflected her own views, they almost certainly were made with the full approval of her brother.
“Kim Yo Jong is playing a role as North Korea’s ‘second man’ after Kim Jong Un,” said Choi Jin-wook, president of the Center for Strategic and Cultural Studies here. Surely, said Choi, she was “under orders from her brother to say something strong.”
Kang’s remarks made her a convenient target for North Korean rhetoric while North Korean diplomatic missions abroad are under instructions not to make comments that might be offensive to the U.S. The inference is that Kim Jong Un is waiting to see the direction of U.S. policy toward his regime after Joe Biden’s inauguration next month.
So far Kim has said nothing about Biden’s election, as yet unmentioned in the North Korean state media. “Biden has set the conditions clearly,” said Choi. “He has called for denuclearization. Now North Korea expects something from the U.S. after Trump is gone.”
Seen that way, Kim Yo Jong’s rhetoric appeared as a warning intended for both the U.S. and South Korea that North Korea will go on pursuing a hard line diplomatically despite the friendship formed between her brother and President Donald Trump during their three summits.
Kim Jong Un can also hope that the U.S. and South Korea have major unresolved differences.
While looking to tighten the bond with South Korea, Biegun will have to address one major irritant—President Donald Trump’s demand for a vast increase in the amount that South Korea contributed to U.S. defense of the South, which came to $927 million last year. Negotiations between the U.S. and South Korea on that issue have screeched to a halt, possibly while both sides wait for President-elect Joe Biden’s new team to come up with a viable compromise.
North Korea, however, is suffering so much from the pandemic that it’s questionable whether it can really back up big talk with action in the form of more missile and nuclear tests. The country this month adopted “maximum emergency” measures to combat COVID-19 while tightening surveillance of its northern border with China, closed since early this year after the disease was first reported in the Chinese industrial city of Wuhan.
Many foreign diplomats, fearful of catching a disease in a country with inadequate medical facilities, have left for home. Only two UN officials, with the World Food Program, remain in the North Korean capital. No foreigners are able to leave Pyongyang to see what is happening elsewhere in the country.