SEOUL – Tour guides don’t commonly threaten to hurl their charges off tour buses, but it happened in 2005 in Pyongyang.
This writer was part of a visiting delegation of overseas reporters in North Korea when a German journalist approached the tour guide, a Mr. Choi, with a brace of seemingly reasonable questions.
First, she politely established that then-leader Kim Jong Il would pass away at some point – a point that Choi, a grizzled former state security official who had the unenviable task of escorting 18 foreign reporters through Pyongyang, conceded.
Then she popped the big one. She wondered whether, after his demise, there might be any possibility that North Korea could, one day – perhaps, just maybe – be led by a female Kim family member….?
Choi turned an impressive shade of purple. “If I could, I would throw you off the bus for that question!” he roared.
Shocked silence filled the bus. Rather than trying Choi’s blood pressure further, the German reporter – and her 17 colleagues – let the matter rest. Needless to say, though, the incident raised sharp questions about gender equality in North Korea.
Upon hearing the anecdote, Chun Su-jin laughs.
“I am not surprised,” says the author of the just-published North Korean Women in Power: Daughters of the Sun (Hollym, Seoul, 2022), which examines four female power players in the little-known state. “North Korean society is still very much male-oriented – it’s like a men’s heaven.”
It is not alone. South Korea, for all its democratic governance, cosmopolitan nous and global cool has a very un-level gender playing field. According to Seoul’s Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, in 2021, it ranked 102nd among 156 nations surveyed in the Gender Gap Index, and women fell far behind men in the employment rate (57.7% versus 75.2%).
If that is grim, how bad are things for citizens of its pitifully poor – and deeply isolated – northern neighbor?
“The reason I wrote this book is that is it such a men’s paradise,” Chun, a 40-something reporter for the Joongang Ilbo, one of the top three dailies in South Korea, tells Asia Times. “But somehow, these four ladies came up the ladder.”
That’s a story, or four stories. But Chun also had a more personal reason for writing the book: Grandparents from both sides of her family were refugees from North Korea who settled in the South.
“It is still Confucian society – Confucian communism!” Chun says of North Korea. “I am grateful to my grandparents for fleeing their home as – if I had been born there – I cannot even imagine.”
Chun’s new book examines the lives and careers of orchestra leader Hyun Song Wol, rumored to be Kim Jong Un’s protocol chief; Kim’s wife, Ri Sol Ju; and Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui. However, the subject who will likely seize most readers’ eyes is Kim’s high-profile younger sister: Kim Yo Jong, 35.
Her role in Pyongyang’s power structure – “de facto queen” in Chun’s words – and her position vis a vis her sister-in-law – whose role Chun describes as more like a first lady – speaks volumes about the hierarchies prevailing behind the bamboo curtain.
Good at good cop, good at bad cop
Kim first shot to global attention in 2018, when she joined the advance guard of her brother’s surprise diplomatic offensive.
.After seven years of self-imposed domestic seclusion, North Korea’s untried young leader summited, in rapid succession, with presidents Xi Jinping of China, Moon Jae-in of South Korea and Donald Trump of the United States.
South Koreans goggled at this attractive member of the ruling Kim clan – one entrusted, despite her youth, by her brother to test the international waters. That bespoke an obvious closeness between the siblings.
They had shared a fraught childhood. Although they were schooled at an elite Swiss school, they were away from home and family at a time when the survival of both the Kim clan and North Korea itself looked precarious. The nation was suffering a murderous famine. An entire school of foreign punditry (“the collapsists”) expected it to implode.
It did not, and the sibling bond forged in Switzerland endures. Recent photos both official (at her brother’s side at grand state affairs) and unofficial (waiting, with apparent anxiety, for her brother on the sidelines of summits) make clear her important position in Kim’s entourage.
“Kim Jong Un depends on her,” Chun says. “She is not any confidante – she is the go-to person.”
Chun remembers first seeing her in the flesh in 2018 at the Singapore summit between her brother and Trump. “She was all serious and daunting, in a silk blouse and a prim and proper skirt.”
However, citing an unnamed source with close-in knowledge – almost certainly North Korean – Chun describes Kim as a “giggly princess.” “She has the personality of an agashi [girl/unmarried woman],” Chun says. “But she is really smart – she knows how to play with power.”
And she has power. Kim is deputy director of the party’s Publicity and Information Department and the only female member of her brother’s brain trust, the State Affairs Commission.
As per multiple analyses, Kim’s public posture toward South Korea and the USA has shifted radically.
During the heady days of engagement in 2018 and 2019, she was the charming envoy. “Just remember how South Koreans loved her – we had headlines like, ‘Look at that smile!’” Chun says. “Everybody was smitten – especially Moon Jae-in.”
She adds, with reference to the then-president’s zeal for cross-DMZ engagement, “He was ready to be smitten.”
But engagement with North Korea cratered after Trump walked out of a 2019 summit in Hanoi, Vietnam. Then little sister Kim – whom Chun calls “totally versatile and talented in presenting any side” – transitioned to attack dog.
“She could be the ‘bad cop’ – and she is very good at it – and she can be the ‘good cop’ – and is very good at it,” Chun assesses.
In the “bad cop” role assailing South Korea, she has – unusually – added her name to state media editorials.
”That was one of the many firsts – in the past, this would have a [non-bylined] column – and reading between the lines, you can tell she is excited to do this,” Chun says. “She has guts. She is not afraid of anything.”
So could Kim – as is endlessly speculated in Western media – feasibly take over the reins of state if her brother was incapacitated or died?
“I have written a lot of stories posing this question, but I don’t have the answer,” Chun admits. “She could be an interim leader but the male elite will never acknowledge her as queen. They are still the Joseon Dynasty in that sense.”
Joseon, the last royal dynasty to rule the (undivided) Korean peninsula, lasted from 1392 to 1910, when it fell to Japanese annexation. Joseon’s queens were kings’ consorts, rather than ruling monarchs themselves.
That offers a possible hint at North Korean futures. “As long as the Kim dynasty is there, they are not ready for a queen up front,” Chun says.
De facto queen and de jure first lady
North Korea confounds socio-political analysts who attempt to label it. It is a unique pot pourri, blending neo-Confucian social mores with post-communist trappings; extreme militarism with hereditary monarchism.
“North Korean society is not a communist society as Marx imagined it, is a dynasty that employs, or has the face, of communism,” Chun says.
The Kims, now in their third generation on the national throne, perch at the top of a deeply entrenched hierarchy based on the songbun class system. “Songbun is the color of blood,” Chun saiys. “If you have blue blood, you can never change that.”
Needless to say, all four of Chun’s subjects have blue liquid pulsing through their veins. This points to a neo-Joseon state of affairs in Pyongyang’s halls of power.
Kim Yo Jong is “de facto queen of North Korea and I think Kim Jong Un knows that too,” Chun says, in reference to the sister’s access to him, and thereby to power. “But one thing that can never change is that Kim Jong Un is number one, and she knows it – she knows how to utilize that hierarchy; she puts him first but is happy to be second.”
If Kim is de facto queen, what does that make her brother’s wife, Ri Sol-ju?
Ri, a former cheerleader, singer and beauty queen, is known to have borne Kim Jong Un two female children and there are rumors of a son.
While North Korea may appear bizarre to Western news readers, many South Korean analysts believe Kim is trying to “normalize” its governance. The process is visible in multiple areas – from the Western-style suits Kim sometimes dons to the increased decision-making role he has delegated to various party bodies.
It is also visible both in the role of women at the top, and the first lady-style role Ri plays at Kim’s side.
“He is always there with Ri Sol Ju, they go out with crossed arms,” says Chun. “He wants to present himself like a modern-day statesman, and that makes him smart, too.”
He is the first North Korean leader to be seen in public with his spouse.
“We never saw Kim Jong Il or Kim Il Sung with their wives,” Chun says. “It was unthinkable.” (Incidentally, Chun’s subtitle, “Daughters of the Sun” derives from state founder Kim Il Sung’s name, which roughly translates as “become the sun.”)
Noting that Ri is the “first lady that North Korea presents to the world,” Chun recalls a telling anecdote from the first Kim-Moon meeting in 2018: Speaking on-camera after the summit, Ri made a down-to-earth comment, complaining that her husband smoked too much.
“In North Korea, Kim Jong Un is a god,” Chun marvels. “That really tells us something about what kind of leader he wants to be: He wants to represent himself more as a modern leader.”
Maidens of the Kimdom
The high status enjoyed by Chun’s four subjects raises the wider question of women’s empowerment inside North Korea.
Some Korean War veterans remember female partisans fighting exclusively on the communist side. And female guerillas remain a favored icon in North Korean art. Is avowedly socialist North Korea – which also preceded South Korea in certain areas of gender legislation – more gender-unbiased than South Korea?
Chun is unconvinced. She dismisses early women’s rights policies as, “propaganda from Kim Il Sung – he wanted popular support from women.”
Even so, she believes that women have been emancipated by unplanned changes in the North Korean economy, taking on roles as not just homemakers but also businesspersons.
“In many households in North Korea it is the women who bring home the bacon at the jangmadang,” Chun says, referring to the unofficial but officially tolerated markets that have transformed North Korea’s consumer economy since the 1990s famines. “They have double burdens on their shoulders.”
Their double burdens will not seem alien to Western – or South Korean – working wives. And presenting North Korea as a “place where real people live” is one of the reasons Chun wrote her book – which is no dry analytical tome, but benefits from Chun’s ever-lively authorial voice.
“Whenever I see [North Korean] coverage in global media, I sense voyeurisms: missiles and strange leaders,” Chun said. “Many young South Koreans think it is a strange, foreign country and they don’t even want to think about reunifying, they think it will cost money.”
Recalling her late grandparents’ tears when they visited South Korean border lookout posts to stare into unreachable North Korea, reporter Chun says, “It is where my blood comes from.”
One day she would like to return to source.
“My dream is to be Pyongyang correspondent for the paper,” she says.
Follow this writer on Twitter @ASalmonSeoul