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The question I'd most like to ask Kim Yo-Jong, North Korea's doyenne of despotism

North Korea's second-in-command, Kim Yo-Jong, has emerged as the most dangerous woman in the world

Illustration of Kim Yo-Jong

Illustration: Chris Bentham

“If you met her, what would you ask her?” the BBC’s Julian Marshall asked me in a recent interview on Kim Yo-Jong, the younger sister of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and the subject of my book, The
Sister
. I didn’t have a readymade answer. It had never occurred to me that I may ever meet her. 

Unauthorised and undiplomatic, my biography of Ms Kim pulls few punches. Referring to her as the world’s first “nuclear despotess”, hence, the most dangerous woman out there, I portray her as the de facto second-in-command to her brother, who heads a nuclear-armed and uniquely cruel regime. According to the United Nations, the North Korean state, in the perpetration of manifold crimes against humanity, “does not have any parallel in the contemporary world”.   

North Korea is ruled by arguably the most totalitarian regime in history. Neither medieval kings, who lacked North Korea’s technical means of mass mobilisation and surveillance, nor George Orwell, who died in 1950, could have prefigured it. 

Until the great famine of the 1990s, such was the regime’s near-total control over its population that very few North Koreans dared defect – a crime punishable by death that extends to the family of the condemned. But mass starvation drove people into China and beyond. For tens of thousands, an instinct for survival trumped fear of imprisonment. 

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Supreme leader Kim Jong Il, Ms Kim’s father, saw a business opportunity. In presiding over a famine in an industrialised, literate and stable economy – a unique feat in history —Mr Kim used the mass starvation of his people as an international fundraiser, reaping billions of dollars’ worth of aid. The UN accused him of the “inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation”.  

And how have Kim Jong Un and Kim Yo-Jong led their nation? The enslavement, deliberate mass starvation and public executions of their subjects while threatening nuclear strikes on their neighbour – the free, democratic and prosperous South Korea – rage on. Out of this macabre milieux has emerged a young, attractive doyenne of modern despotism. 

From the moment she touched down in South Korea for the opener of the Pyeongchang Winter Games in February 2018, much of South Korea seemed enthralled by her. A princess of peace, cooed commentators. The cognoscenti remarked on her chaste taste in fashion and makeup. At the opening ceremony, seated behind US VP Mike Pence with her Mona Lisa smirk-smile, she stole the show. 

The next morning she personally delivered a letter from her brother to South Korean president Moon Jae-In. Many hoped for peace, denuclearisation and reunification. 

But the bonhomie didn’t last. In April 2019, her brother called President Moon “officious” and said that South Korea should abandon its “sycophancy” towards the US. In August, her nation’s major propaganda outlet fired off one of the more pungent insults against Moon, calling the leader a “laughing-stock” and suggesting that the idea of holding peace talks while military exercises continued was enough to “make the boiled head of a cow laugh”. In March 2020 Ms Kim issued her first official written statement, aimed at Moon. She called her former agreeable host a “frightened dog barking”. More and more colourful insults poured forth from the potty-mouthed First Sister of North Korea: “parrot raised by America”, “mentally ill”, and “first-class idiot”. 

She’s not held back when it comes to Moon’s successor, President Yoon Suk Yeol, or President Joe Biden. She castigated the former as an “idiot” and ridiculed the latter as a “person in his dotage”, flirting with “more serious danger”. Recently reports have surfaced saying that Ms Kim has been issuing execution orders for people simply “getting on her nerves”. Officials and ordinary people alike refer to her as “devil woman” and a “bloodthirsty demon”. 

How far will she sink? Kim Yo-Jong’s descent into vituperation and despotism is calculated. Her role of playing the “even worse cop” to her “bad cop” brother will be rendered even more dramatic once she calls for peace talks. After a period of nastiness and threats comes a post-provocation peace phase featuring smiles, handshakes and pledges – both of peace by Pyongyang and funds by others. That’s the Pyongyang playbook.  

At that heady meeting, punctuated by visions of denuclearisation and a better future for all, please ask her the question I can’t: “How much of your family’s wealth are you willing to spend to buy food for your hungry people?” 

"The Sister: The extraordinary story of Kim Yo Jong, the most powerful woman in North Korea" book cover

Sung-Yoon Lee is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. His book, The Sister: The Extraordinary Story of Kim Yo-Jong, the Most Powerful Woman in North Korea is out now (Pan MacMillan, £20). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.To support our work buy a copy!

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