[News analysis] Kim Yo-jong becomes the face of N. Korea regarding propaganda balloons

Posted on : 2020-06-08 16:10 KST Modified on : 2020-06-08 16:10 KST
Kim Jong-un’s younger sister has clearly risen in stature and power in Pyeongyang
Kim Yo-jong, first deputy director of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, during a banquet for high-level officials to celebrate the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics on Feb. 10, 2018. (photo pool)
Kim Yo-jong, first deputy director of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, during a banquet for high-level officials to celebrate the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics on Feb. 10, 2018. (photo pool)

For several days following a June 4 statement by Kim Yo-jong, first deputy director of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), North Korean officials have criticized North Korean defector groups that launch balloons filled with anti-North Korea propaganda leaflets over the border and have been pressuring the South Korean government to stop the balloon launches. North Korea published a statement by the spokesperson of its United Front Department on June 5, and the Rodong Sinmun state-run newspaper covered a reaction from all sectors of society, including mass rallies held in protest, in its June 6 and 7 issues.

Whereas defectors and propaganda leaflets have hitherto been a taboo subject in North Korea, Kim Yo-jong’s statement has defined them as a grave crime of deluding and insulting the entire Korean people. The North Korean authorities have added the issue to the public agenda in an apparent attempt to arouse vigilance. The fact that Kim’s statement is being treated on par with a statement by the country’s leader Kim Jong-un, her older brother, can be regarded as cogent evidence pf Kim Yo-jong’s special stature within the WPK.

Kim Yo-jong oversees relations with S. Korea

Three things are especially important. First is the unusual fact that the statement by the United Front Department officially said that Kim Yo-jong is overseeing North Korea’s relations with the South. Second was the fact that the same statement mentioned that Kim had given “instructions” for follow-up measures. Third was the reaction from all sectors of the country, which received extensive coverage in the June 6 and 7 editions of the Rodong Sinmun. This has numerous implications for the course of inter-Korean relations and for North Korea’s internal power structure.

In regard to inter-Korean relations, the statement by the United Front Department described Kim Yo-jong’s statement as having been issued by the first deputy director in charge of relations with South Korea. The same statement said that Kim instructed government agencies dealing with South Korea on June 5 to begin reviewing the content of the statement so as to carry it out on the working level. The North’s promise to shut down the Inter-Korean Liaison Office at Kaesong is one of the things that Kim ordered.

In North Korea, in which the national motto is “reunification of the fatherland,” Kim Jong-un is ultimately in charge of relations with the South, with the United Front Department left to handle practical matters. Even so, the United Front Department’s statement made a point of emphasizing that Kim Yo-jong is handling relations with the South. One possible interpretation is that Kim Yo-jong is acting as the proxy and spokesperson for her older brother in regard to inter-Korean relations and that therefore South Korea will have to go through her if it wants to improve those relations.

The Rodong Sinmun covered the United Front Department’s statement about Kim Yo-jong’s instructions in a lead story on page two of the June 6 issue and covered the reaction to that statement from various sectors in its June 6 and 7 issues, which demands a close reading of the North Korean power structure. Seven of the 47 articles in the Rodong Sinmun’s June 6 edition were related to the Kim Yo-jong statement, appearing on page one and two, while 12 of the 30 articles in the June 7 edition were on the same topic, appearing on pages one, three, and six. There were articles and photos about “mass protests” that were held at sites including the Kim Chaek University of Technology, the construction site of the Pyongyang General Hospital, and the Kim Chong-tae Electric Locomotive Works, along with a rally held by the Kimilsungist-Kimjongilist Youth League at the outdoor theater of the Pyongyang Youth Park on June 6.

The Rodong Sinmun also printed columns by the head of the Pyongyang party committee, the head of North Korea’s State Planning Commission, the director of the Central Office of the Prosecutors, the head of the Samjiyon party committee, the chair of the central committee of the Social Women’s Union of Korea, and the chair of the rural economy committee for South Hwanghae Province.

Kim Yo-jong may have marked as a potential successor for N. Korean regime

Such coverage is unprecedented in North Korean history; only the supreme leader himself has given directions and aroused a reaction from all quarters of society in the state-run Rodong Sinmun, North Korea’s most authoritative paper and a “must read” for all members of the public. Not even Choe Ryong-hae — who as president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly and first vice chairman of the State Affairs Commission is the number-two person in the formal power structure — has ever received such treatment.

“In North Korea, instructions that have been given by someone other than the supreme leader can’t be printed in the Rodong Sinmun. This is an unmistakable sign that Kim Yo-jong has already been made a potential successor inside the North Korean regime,” said a former high-ranking government official who is experienced with interpreting happenings in the North.

The United Front Department’s declaration that enemies are always enemies and that North Korea is determined to do whatever it takes also appear to be connected with Kim Yo-jong’s appearance as the top official in charge of South Korean affairs in place of Kim Jong-un. The implication is that the South Korean government’s response to the launching of propaganda balloons could determine the future course of inter-Korean relations.

“What the North Koreans are saying is that if the South can’t even keep its promise to ban the propaganda balloons, a matter that’s unrelated to sanctions and that the leaders of South and North Korea already reached an agreement about, there isn’t anything the two sides can work on together,” the former official said.

“We’re in a perilous situation in which another propaganda balloon launch could cause the door of inter-Korean relations to shut completely. If the South Korean government deals with this issue in a principled manner, in line with the inter-Korean agreement, this could actually pave the way for a major opportunity in inter-Korean relations since Kim Yo-jong has taken center stage.” According to this official, Kim’s new and unfamiliar role in the issue of the propaganda balloons is at once a crisis and an opportunity.

Considerations about the sensitivity of the situation underlay the South Korean Ministry of Unification’s decision to issue a terse official statement on June 7 without mimicking the harsh tone of the United Front Department’s statement. “The government intends to comply with and implement the matters agreed upon by the leaders of South and North Korea, including the Panmunjom Declaration,” the Ministry of Unification (MOU) said. This statement was in line with the MOU’s announcement on the day of Kim Yo-jong’s statement that it plans to submit legislation banning the launch of propaganda balloons and the Blue House’s statement that the propaganda balloons do more harm than good.

By Lee Je-hun, senior staff writer

Please direct comments or questions to [english@hani.co.kr]

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