North Korean leader Kim Jong-un appears with first lady Ri Sol-ju at a holiday event held a Samjiyon Orchestra Theatre in Pyongyang on Jan. 25, 2020. On their left is Hyon Song-wol, the leader of the Samjiyon Orchestra at the time. (Still from KCTV/Yonhap)
It happened around the time North Korea’s first lady Ri Sol-ju first appeared in public. I was called up out of the blue by a newspaper reporter.
The media at the time were tripping over each other reporting on Kim Jong-un’s every move, and there were all sorts of takes on the activities of this young leader suddenly appearing in public with his wife.
The media had made no secret of their voyeuristic fixation on North Korea, and there was no chance they would let this new twist with a young first lady go untapped. All sorts of fake news began making the rounds, covering everything from her past activities to her private life with Kim Jong-un.
“Ri Sol-ju was said to be wearing a Dior outfit. Did you know about that?” the reporter asked me.
“Why are you asking me about Dior?” I responded. “Is that really important?”
I was feeling a bit testy at the time, having already been annoyed by the various sensationalistic reports.
“Oh, I thought that as a female professor… you might have something to comment on Ri Sol-ju’s fashion.”
The reporter, possibly taken aback by the curtness of my reply, offered the worst possible excuse. At moments like this, the best policy is to end the conversation on the least awkward terms you can manage. The reporter seemed surprised themselves at the inappropriate remark that had just come out of their mouth.
While the part about asking me because I was a “female professor” may have been the reporter’s mistake, they were hardly the only representative of the media taking an interest in Ri Sol-ju’s appearance and clothing. Everyone from the desk that planned the article to the curious readers clicking on it was complicit in the reproduction of this skewed gender attitude.Why Kim Yo-jong’s cold demeanor shocked
South Korean media also made all sorts of lurid and sexualized speculation about Hyon Song-wol, who emerged around the same time as deputy director of the Workers’ Party of Korea Propaganda and Agitation Department.
As if it weren’t enough to disparage her “work” as nonskilled, the media also splashed their pages with ridiculous false reports about her private life. (An example was “Kim Jong-un’s former lover and 10 others face firing squad for printing obscene materials,” which appeared in the Chosun Ilbo dated Aug. 29, 2013.)
These attitudes toward the female figures surrounding Kim Jong-un cause people to view his regime as an organization of amateurs based on personal relationships, rather than a group of professional administrators and politicians.
Hyon Song-wol is a key figure in charge of music-related policies for the Kim regime, but her activities and messages have not been analyzed within the official system. Instead, she is seen simply as one of the “women” in Kim’s orbit.
Representations of women who perform official roles tend to focus less on their capabilities than on their appearance and private lives. The focus of media reporting on male politicians is on their official role; most media representations of women in leadership roles focus on their personal lives and looks.
As we see with the major scandal that erupted not long ago when Finland’s youngest female prime minister was observed partying with friends, the ways in which women in politics are represented are closely tied to socially sanctioned definitions of “femininity.”
Reports that focus on Kim Yo-jong, whose official title is vice department director of the WPK Central Committee, are at least somewhat less crude. Still, there is a tendency to interpret her role along restrictive lines because she is a woman.
We see this in the characterization of her as a “helper” to her older brother Kim Jong-un, and she is also viewed as someone who passively conveys Kim’s views rather than as an active political participant in her own right.
In this situation, several hostile messages toward South Korea and the US have been published under Kim Yo-jong’s name, and she then organized the demolition of the Inter-Korean Liaison Office. That was a big shock for South Koreans, many of whom would never have guessed that the grinning woman who visited the South in 2018 could decide on anything as hostile and violent as the demolition of the liaison office.
Paradoxically enough, the shock over Kim Yo-jong’s cold-blooded behavior reveals that South Korean society has been projecting certain gender stereotypes upon her while regarding her less as a politician than as a “woman,” or the “younger sister” of the leader.Growing sense that it’s OK to ignore these women
The gendered gaze on Kim Yo-jong the politician intensifies in relation to Kim Jong-un’s daughter Kim Ju-ae. That’s exemplified by the media’s magnification of speculation that Kim Ju-ae has come to the spotlight as part of a conflict between Ri Sol-ju, the wife, and Kim Yo-jong, the younger sister.
That reflects a conventional paternalistic perspective that interprets Ri Sol-ju and Kim Yo-jong not as public figures but as “ladies of the court” who are secretly striving to win the affections of the leader. Even though it’s widely known that everything connected with Kim Jong-un proceeds according to the meticulous strategy and vision of the state, the words and actions of Kim Yo-jong, Ri Sol-ju and Hyon Song-wol are given unusual interpretations because they’re women. They’re treated as if they have no expertise, capabilities or talents of their own and only exist to serve the will of Kim Jong-un.
Consider how Kim Ju-ae’s future prospects are regarded. During the year since her first public appearance at the test launch of the Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile on Nov. 18, 2022, Kim Jong-un’s daughter has been present at 17 or so official events. Some think she’s being groomed to succeed her father, but many are skeptical that a “woman” could become leader in a country as paternalistic as North Korea. The stereotype that political leaders are men can once again be witnessed here.
It’s impossible to predict whether Kim Ju-ae will be the heir to the Kim dynasty, but that’s not because she’s a “daughter.” Rather, we don’t know enough about her capabilities to make such a prediction.
Presuming that Kim Ju-ae develops the abilities needed to guide North Korea into the future and that external and internal conditions are favorable, she could very well inherit rule from her father. If she fails to cultivate those abilities, however, she’s unlikely to inherit power, regardless of her position in the “Mount Paektu bloodline.”
For a great number of reasons, Kim Jong-il passed leadership on to Kim Jong-un, not his older brothers Kim Jong-nam or Kim Jong-chul. That’s why a handful of photographs and some fragmentary information aren’t sufficient to draw any conclusions about whether Kim Ju-ae will become her father’s heir.
The final question to consider is the effect of viewing North Korea’s major policymakers in the simplistic gendered terms of “women.”
In a nutshell, the impression that the leadership structure is composed of the leader’s “wife,” “younger sister,” “older female acquaintance” and “daughter” reinforces the stereotype that the North Korean regime is neither rational nor stable.
As a consequence, North Korea is also perceived not as an equal and rational partner for dialogue but an animalistic and dangerous entity that should be disdained and destroyed. This perception of North Korea lies behind the continuing failure to resume dialogue.
On the evening of Nov. 21, North Korea managed to put a military reconnaissance satellite into orbit. North Korea’s 2018 comprehensive military agreement with the South has been effectively scrapped, and military tensions are rising.
While South Korean society persists in its far-fetched and contemptuous conjectures about the North Korean leadership, the North Korean regime is moving ahead with plans that are grounded in an exceedingly hardheaded perception of reality.
By Kim Sung-kyung, professor at the University of North Korean Studies
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