Kim Yo Jong, the kid sister of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un, is riding high again after issuing one of her most bizarre attacks on South Korea at the culmination of Pyongyang’s big Workers’ Party jamboree.
Just as eyebrows were raised when her name was excluded from the new politburo of the ruling Workers’ Party, Yo Jong came forcefully to the fore once again.
She accompanied her brother on a visit to the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun to pay respects before the glass-encased bodies of their grandfather, Kim Il Sung, who founded the ruling regime, and their father, Kim Jong Il. After a salute to the dynasty, it was Yo Jong who unleashed the fieriest rhetoric of a week-long ruling party congress, which was last held in 2016.
Kim Yo Jong took verbal potshots at the South’s military chieftains claiming they had utterly failed to predict how the congress would unfold north of the border.
“What is weird,” said Yo Jong, “is that the joint chiefs of staff of South Korea made a senseless statement that they [spotted] the north opening a military parade at midnight on Jan. 10.”
According to the state media, Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency, Yo Jong found it hysterical that these South Korean generals thought they could tell what was going on thanks to their aerial surveillance.
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Here they were doing “precision tracking,” she said, it “but they are the idiots.” For all their sleuthing, they led “the world’s list” in“misbehavior,” showing “they are only keen” on “provoking laughter” everywhere.
Just who was getting the last laugh was not exactly clear, but her statement did raise the question of whether the North actually would wind up the congress with one of its traditional parades.
Choi Jin-wook, president of the Center for Strategic and Cultural Studies in Seoul, said “economy is the priority” and “a military parade is unlikely at least until April.”
While it’s always necessary to preface predictions about North Korea with the phrase, “anything can happen,” Choi suspected much of Kim Jong Un’s military braggadocio was masking the reality that he is now looking for an exit from opposing dialog or compromise.
Choi, who served for years as chief North Korea analyst at the Korea Institute for National Unification, said his real message for President-elect Joe Biden and South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in and President Xi Jinping of China was that he had eased away from flexing his military muscle.
“He is going to rely on China and will improve relations with it,” said Choi, while also keeping the door open for talks with both South Korea and the U.S.
Kim Yo Jong’s remarks suggested that she and her brother were effectively saying, don’t worry about any parade as the North was not “targeting anybody.” Nor, she said, was there any loose talk about a “launch of anything.”
All of which provoked her to ask, “Do they really have nothing else to do but let their military body make ‘precision tracking’ of the celebrations in the North?”
The fact that Kim Yo Jong spoke out so strongly after dropping off the politburo confounded attempts at assessing her status in the ruling elite. Adding to the mystery, she was identified in the KCNA story as a vice department director rather than “first” vice department director on the party’s central committee—the kind of nuance that sends Pyongyang-watchers into paroxysms of speculation especially since a week ago she was named to the congress presidium.
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A highlight of the congress was that big brother, who already was party chairman, got himself unanimously elected “general secretary,” a rank hitherto held only by Kim Il Sung, who died in 1994, and his father, Kim Jong Il, named “eternal general secretary” after his death in 2011. Interestingly, China’s President Xi was the first foreign leader to congratulate Kim on his promotion, making clear he can count on China to bail him out as the going gets tough.
“Even as KJU elevated himself to the same rank his father and grandfather once held,” said Evans Revere, former senior diplomat in the American embassy in Seoul, “he felt compelled to remind his sister who is in charge.”
“One dares not shine too brightly in his presence,” he said, “but unless she commits a truly unforgivable offense, I expect she will remain one of his closest advisors.”
Kim wound up the congress on a high note, as expected, declaring, “While further strengthening our nuclear war deterrent, we need to do everything to build the strongest military capabilities.”
More importantly, he said the future depended on the latest “five-year plan for national economic development”—a grandiose vision that would succeed only after “desperate struggle” to compensate for the failure of the five-year plan promoted at the last party congress in 2016.
The question of how to feed his poverty-stricken people has had to take priority during the congress over big talk about an enormous mega-ton nuclear bomb, a new-fangled submarine capable of launching missiles while submerged, long-range ballistic missiles capable of carrying warheads anywhere in the U.S., or “tactical” nukes, capable of inflicting massive death and destruction anywhere nearby, notably South Korea and Japan.
Even if North Korea does show off some of this stuff, there’s no saying whether they would be displaying the real thing or mock-ups. As always in analyzing North Korea, the problem for Biden’s new foreign policy team will be to separate fact from fiction, truth from reality.
Complicating matters, as Human Rights Watch in New York pointed out, North Korea is more closed than ever to objective scrutiny as a result of the pandemic.
John Sifton, HRW’s Asia advocacy director, said Kim’s regime “used COVID-19 restrictions as a pretext to further entrench totalitarian rule and keep North Korea isolated.” He called for pressure on the North “to take transparent action with international assistance.”
“Extreme restrictions in response to COVID-19 far exceeded public health protection needs, leaving North Koreans more isolated than ever,” said the HRW report. “Authorities intensified already tight restrictions on communications with the outside world.”
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