March 2023

The new face of North Korea

With Kim Jong-un’s daughter and sister taking prominent roles during a time of mounting tensions in East Asia, Duncan Bartlett considers the dangers posed to international security by the North Korean regime

Over the course of history, many kings and emperors have sat upon the throne of Korea, as well as a few queens. According to legend, the first monarch, Dangun – known as the ‘grandson of heaven’ – founded the kingdom in 2333 BC. The monarchy was abolished in 1910, following Korea’s annexation by Japan, an event which continues to cause resentment and tension.

At the time, the Japanese insisted that ‘His Majesty the Emperor of Korea makes the complete and permanent cession to His Majesty the Emperor of Japan of all rights of sovereignty over the whole of Korea’.

Today, South Korea and Japan are successful democracies. Their militaries cooperate and their foreign ministries are in regular contact. They are committed allies of the United States and they stand together in the face of danger posed by a common threat: North Korea.

While South Korea has an elected president, a role currently served by Yoon Suk-yeol, in North Korea aspects of monarchy linger on through a hereditary dictatorship.

The North’s current ruler, Kim Jong-un, was appointed as the successor to his father, Kim Jong-il, when he was just eight years old. Now it would appear that he, in turn, has chosen his daughter Ju-ae – whom foreign intelligence services estimate was born in 2013 – to be the next leader of the dynasty.

Kim Yo-jong, younger sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un
Kim Yo­jong, younger sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong­un (KCNA)

Many striking images of Ju-ae have appeared in the North Korean state media lately. She was the star guest at a military parade and joined a grand banquet with the generals. Her father has taken her by the hand to inspect long-range missiles and the facilities used for the development of nuclear weapons.

Some images reinforce her youth, such as a shot in which she stands between her parents, Kim Jong-un and her mother, Ri Sol-ju. Another photograph shows her dressed in a long, black coat, holding her father’s arm. State propaganda outlet KCNA has recently taken to describing her as Kim’s ‘most beloved’ child.

Yet information about the ruling family is carefully controlled. Kim Jong-un is believed to be the father of three children, including an elder son, about whom the outside world knows little.

In North Korea aspects of monarchy liner on through a hereditary dictatorship

However, there is one other family member who is internationally recognised: Kim Yo-jong. She is Kim Jong-un’s sister and has a high profile role as the deputy director of the party’s propaganda department. She frequently thunders against South Korea and the United States.

In an outburst on television in February, she said that North Korea intends to use the Pacific as a ‘firing range’. Kim Yo-jong was speaking following the launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile into the sea near the Japanese island of Hokkaido. KCNA claimed the move strengthened North Korea’s ‘fatal’ nuclear attack capacity.

Japan’s defence minister estimated that the rocket had a range of 14,000 km, meaning that it could – in theory – reach a target anywhere in the United States.

Amid mounting security concerns, Japan’s cabinet has agreed to double its defence budget. In February, the Japanese Self Defence Forces took part in joint air exercises which also involved South Korea and the United States. Commanders said the manoeuvres were designed to demonstrate the military capabilities of the allies and ‘affirmed the United States’ ironclad commitment to the defense of the Korean Peninsula and the implementation of extended deterrence’.

North Korea believes the drills were nothing short of a rehearsal for an invasion. Kim Yo-jong said that South Korea and the United States had ‘openly revealed their dangerous greed’ and are ‘attempting to gain the military upper hand and a predominant position upon the Korean Peninsula’.

In a stark warning, she added that ‘we will watch every movement of the enemy and take corresponding and very powerful and overwhelming counteractions against every hostile move’.

For America, Japan and South Korea – a group of nations bound in a trilateral defence pact – the continued launches of long-range rockets represent serious provocations. However, South Korea’s Foreign Minister, Park Jin fears there is worse to come.

Collective punishment is used to silence dissent

Kim Jong­un and his daughter observe a football match in Pyongyang, Feb 2023

‘If North Korea conducts a seventh nuclear test – which could happen at any time – it will be a game-changer, in the sense that North Korea could develop and deploy tactical nuclear missiles,’ Mr Park told the Munich Security Conference on February 19.

A few days later, at the insistence of Japan’s prime minister, Fumio Kishida, the United Nations Security Council met in New York to discuss the crisis. Calls for an official condemnation of North Korea were blocked by two of the council’s members: Russia and China.

China’s Deputy UN Ambassador, Dai Bing, dismissed calls for more sanctions on North Korea, claiming they would only lead to a diplomatic dead end. ‘China genuinely hopes for stability, rather than chaos on the Peninsula. China calls on all parties to remain cool-headed and restrained,’ Dai said.

This led to a frustrated reaction from the United States’ representative, as any official response from the UN Security Council needs to be agreed through consensus

‘The reality is that those who shield the DPRK (North Korea) from the consequences of its escalatory missile tests put the Asian region and entire world at risk of conflict,’ said US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield, adding that ‘the council’s lack of action is worse than shameful. It is dangerous’.

After the Security Council meeting, some of the body’s members – America, France and the UK – issued a joint statement, along with South Korea, condemning Pyongyang’s missile launches.It read: ‘We will not stay silent as the DPRK advances its unlawful nuclear and missile capabilities, threatening international peace and security.’

It was clearly a message directed at China, Russia – and all the members of the Kim family.

Duncan Bartlett is the Editor of Asian Affairs