Is She the Most Dangerous Woman on Earth?
Dr. Sung-Yoon Lee on Kim Yo Jong, Sister of Kim Jong Un
NEW YORK, October 11 — North Korea expert Dr. Sung-Yoon Lee recently joined Asia Society Policy Institute’s Emma Whitmyer for a conversation on his recent book The Sister: North Korea’s Kim Yo Jong, the Most Dangerous Woman in the World. Little has been known about Kim Yo Jong, Kim Jong Un’s younger sister, who has taken a more official role in North Korean politics after being elevated to the position of the nation’s chief propogandist and policy maker. Since stepping into the international spotlight in 2018 with a visit to the Winter Olympics in South Korea — becoming the first member of the Kim family to visit the South since the Korean War — she has become what Dr. Lee calls “the nation’s chief censor, spokeswoman, mocker, and threat-and-malice dispenser.”
This September Kim joined Kim Jong Un for his momentous meeting with Vladimir Putin discussing military matters, the war in Ukraine, and possible Russian help for the state satellite program. She was at his side as he signed the guestbook at the Vostochny Cosmodrome after promising to begin supplying Russia with Korean War-era artillery.
Should anything happen to Kim Jong Un while his children are too young to take office, Kim Yo Jong will be the first woman to ever take power in the male-dominated political landscape of North Korea. When asked about her vision for the future of the Korean Peninsula, Dr. Lee responded, “She does not have pure[ly] peaceful designs [for] the nature of her dynasty that she hopes to inherit one day." He noted that she wants to maintain the lavish lifestyle, cult of personality, and absolute power that North Korea’s leaders have been privy to. Above all, she wants to maintain the “power to have people executed on a whim [and] play God, deciding who lives and dies just because they look at [her] in a way.”
There is little ambiguity around the fact that the Kim siblings in power have significant implications for the future of the Korean peninsula. Since division along the demilitarized zone in 1953, both North and South Korean governments have called for unification, though under very different conditions. When asked how this discussion might evolve over the next few decades, Dr. Lee shared that the current Kim leadership apparatus has expressed an unequivocal desire for the South to come under Northern rule, including statements like “we will finish the revolution by incorporating the entire Korean Peninsula. They say things in the constitution like ‘the supreme national task of the body and the state is the completion of the unification program.’ Do they refer to being absorbed by South Korea? I doubt it.”
Among Dr. Lee’s central claims in The Sister is the idea that as a "relatively young female deputy leader, [Kim Yo Jong] is able to get away with a lot more, than say, less invective, photogenic, surly- looking brother.” Dr. Lee believes that this has led many foreign leaders to give her the benefit of the doubt, which has in turn led her to extend her influence beyond the North Korean regime. On June 4th 2020, Kim Yo Jong issued a written statement calling on South Korea to pass a new law criminalizing the sending of North Korean regime leaflets. “Amazingly, four hours later the chief spokesperson of the South Korean Ministry of Unification called for an unscheduled press conference and said we will work on it right away...we will pass such a law and it was passed,” said Dr. Lee. “So that vignette, even just that, that she was able to extend southward across the border her nation’s brutal, stifling censorship speaks to her standing, her power, her influence.”
Among Kim Yo Jong’s expressions of power has been her vocal willingness to use North Korea’s nuclear arsenal as a bargaining chip. She has made it very clear to the public that her brother has given her access to North Korea’s nuclear codes and can deploy the arsenal with the touch of a button. On two separate occasions in April 2022, she publicly outlined her stance that if South Korea shoots even a single bullet into North Korean territory, she will unleash the states’ nuclear force and bring about something akin to total ruin and destruction. “This is why I say she is the most dangerous woman in the world,” said Dr. Lee. “We’ve never seen a despotist for life armed with nuclear weapons issuing threats of preemptive nuclear attack against a peaceful neighbor in South Korea. So she is to be watched out for and taken very seriously.”
Watch the full discussion and Q&A here.