Trisha De Borchgrave

Kim Yo-jong: A 16th Century Queen for North Korea’s Modern Autocracy

Kim Yo-jung arrives at Jinbu KTX Station, 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games (photo by Jeon Han; Flickr; CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

If Kim Yo-jung’s rumored rule of North Korea comes to pass, the world will gain a powerful voice with a clear historical parallel.

 

Much of the speculation surrounding the possible demise of North Korea’s current leader Kim Jong-un is centered around who would succeed him. The person in the frame is his elusive thirty-two-year-old sister, Kim Yo-jong, first brought to prominent international media attention during the 2018 North Korea–United States Singapore Summit.

Despite her close relationship with her brother, many don’t believe that the North Korean culture of Confucian patriarchy will ever allow a woman to adopt the leader’s mantle. But North Korea is also a country of extreme repression and staged well-being, where notions of gendered collectivism work in solidarity for the state. So, a female leader might just fit the bill for a modern autocracy in the 21st century.

Kim Yo-jong was recently promoted to leader of the appellate body in charge of ideological indoctrination, party organization, and political appointments, putting her, arguably, one step away from total state control and power.

Who better, then, to compare Kim to than Elizabeth I of England, the accidental queen of a fragile dynasty, who artfully used the propaganda of infallibility to cement her rule at home and to keep more powerful external enemies at bay.

The Rainbow and Armada portraits depicting Elizabeth I and the portraits, busts, and statues of North Korean leaders since Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung, all use the same Tudor theatricality of the idealized persona as the object of devotion and veneration. Full of symbolism, these images are designed to communicate with their popular audience that despite five hundred years of separation still shares living conditions of subsistence survival.

 

 

Early on in her reign, Elizabeth I adopted the cultural identity of “Pax Gloriana;” the role of keeper of the Protestant faith, defender of public order, and divinely elected monarch, ruling overall. Leveraging this status, Elizabeth skilfully out-maneuvered internal conspiracies and competing relatives.

Kim might go a long way towards adopting a similar persona embracing the family doctrine of “Juche” (self-reliance) to amplify North Korea’s otherwise limited levers of power.

Imagine, then, future depictions of Supreme Leader Kim Yo-jong. Like Elizabeth, she rests her hand on a globe of distorted geography, with a swollen Korean Peninsula stretching over the widest part of the sphere, and China visible but tiny.

With the other hand, she points to a rainbow, a symbol of her role, like Elizabeth, as serene ruler over her nation, and a reminder also of her eternal heritage; her grandfather’s birth at the foot of Korea’s holy Mount Baekdu ushered by the appearance of a double rainbow, and the sacredness of her father, Kim Il-sung, an officially proclaimed deity in North Korean party folklore.

However, next to Kim, the usual olive branch that is part of Elizabeth’s identity as both victor and peacemaker lies broken.

 

At a time of amorphous threats from a global pandemic in which a mix of discipline, courage, and fact-based, consensus-building political leadership has been especially well-executed by women – from Finland to Taiwan – North Korea could do worse than promote a woman to its highest rank.

 

Earlier this year Kim personally oversaw the destruction of the inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong used for dialogue between the two Koreas, in retaliation for, in her words, the “human scum” of North Korean defectors who spread leaflets across the border.

Both royal commanders are pictured wearing pearls, denoting their quasi-religious virginal state and, thereby, consigning their largely mysterious personal life – their one supposed son, their actual age – to the cult of untouchability. It also serves as the talisman of protection from their scheming political rivals.

Among today’s slick Russian and Chinese propaganda machines, Kim as Pax Gloriana would serve to debunk “myths” about North Korea, like mass starvation and an unrelentingly dire human rights record. In this guise, she could even fool the world into hope for progress on denuclearization; being a woman who, unlike her brother, has the ability to smile and connect in unison with other dignitaries at public events, reflects her psychological competence.

At a time of amorphous threats from a global pandemic in which a mix of discipline, courage, and fact-based, consensus-building political leadership has been especially well-executed by women – from Finland to Taiwan – North Korea could do worse than promote a woman to its highest rank.

But women can be despots too; the hard-boned stares of these two supreme leaders in contrast to their fleshy forbears points to their readiness to rule over peasants, laborers, merchants, and military leaders with ruthless decisiveness.

 


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Kim could prove as capable and cruel as her dynastic predecessors in the ways she neutralizes her competitors. But one has to hope that, as a woman, she understands that North Koreans might want less “jouche” and more of a better life – to travel and have access to education and healthcare and, outside of the capital Pyongyang, food.

The images to date of Kim Yo-jong, just like those of Elizabeth I, are aloof and offer no emotional penetration; Kim lacks the pomp of Elizabeth’s costumed carapace with naval vessels in the background. But behind her communist grey suit lies an arsenal of ballistic missiles. While not a sign of imperial, expansionist ambition, they underscore the determination of a vulnerable regime in desperate search of international security and respect.

Let’s hope that, if Kim Yo-jong becomes North Korea’s first-ever female leader, she leverages her country’s potential and abandons the eternal nihilism of her recent ancestors.

 

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