The Rise of Women Leaders in North Korea

Since Kim Jong Un came to power, North Korean media has carefully curated the public image of both his wife and sister, a departure from how women were portrayed in the Kim Jong Il era. But they aren’t the only women in Pyongyang’s inner circles—several have been promoted to powerful political and diplomatic roles in recent years. While it may not have much impact on his policy decisions in the long run, the fact that Kim Jong Un has opened doors to some women is particularly striking given the historically male representation of power and politics in North Korea.

The Kim Dynasty as the Source of Women’s Leadership

North Korea’s national history abounds with images of women as revolutionaries—whether as soldiers, workers or symbolic “mothers” to the nation, especially the mothers, wives and consorts of the Kim dynasty. Official history calls Kim Il Sung’s mother the “mother of Choson,” upheld as pure legend in the cult of the Kim family. Kim Jong Suk (Kim Il Sung’s first wife and mother to Kim Jong Il) and Kim Hwak Sil (called “the Woman General” of the Anti-Japanese Guerrilla Army) were exceptional women in the independence movement who fought alongside men in battle, upheld as unshakeable and committed revolutionaries (Park 1992-1993).[1]

Kim Il Sung’s second wife, Kim Song Ae, was officially introduced to the public in the 1960s, and received titles such as chairman of the Democratic Women’s Union and held meetings for foreign female delegates.[2] She sought to expand her political clout—positioning her children as possible heirs—making her a formidable challenger to Kim Jong Il’s claim to leadership. By the 1970s, she lost her position as head of the women’s committee and in 1981, as Kim Jong Il consolidated power, was placed under house arrest.[3]

Kim Jong Il, on the other hand, never appeared with his wives and consorts—Hong Il Chon, Song Hye Rim, Kim Yong Suk and Ko Yong Hui—because he reportedly did not like them to be involved in political activities.[4] A notorious womanizer, he largely kept his partners in secluded mansions and apartments, and purportedly preferred them to focus on their motherly duties.[5]

Kim Jong Un’s Rule and Female Leadership

It seems that Kim Jong Un has taken a different tack than his father or grandfather, and is surrounding himself with notable women in high-level positions, suggesting a potential shift for women among a new generation of leaders. These include (listed in alphabetical order):

  • Choe Son Hui has been North Korea’s first vice minister of Foreign Affairs since 2018. Fluent in English, she takes a leading role in DPRK relations with the United States, having previously served as director of MOFA’s North American department. She was involved with the Six Party Talks and nuclear negotiations. She is the adopted daughter of Choe Yong Rim, honorary vice president of the Supreme People’s Assembly Presidium and a former premier.
  • Hyon Song Wol is a popular singer and leader of the Moranbong Band and Samjiyon Orchestra who has taken on greater political responsibilities since 2017, when she was appointed to the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea. She serves as vice director of the powerful Propaganda and Agitation Department under Kim Yo Jong and often appears in her stead in that role as well as is often included on delegations to inter-Korean events, including her 2018 trip to South Korea. That visit, scheduled as part of increasing inter-Korean engagement in the lead-up to the Pyeongchang Olympics, dominated South Korean news, and is considered a diplomatic success.
  • Kim Kyong Hui, Kim Jong Un’s aunt, appeared as a frequent advisor and confidant during the early years of his rule. Kim Jong Il promoted her to a four-star general (despite having no known military experience) in the Korean People’s Army at a Party Conference in 2012—listed next to Kim Jong Un the first time his name appeared in North Korean media.[6] While she frequently appeared with Kim Jong Un beginning in 2010, she was not seen in public after her husband was executed in 2013, until earlier this year when she was photographed seated with Kim Jong Un and his family at a Lunar New Year’s concert in January. Her role in family affairs is unclear, although she likely helps handle patronage networks.
  • Kim Song Hye serves as head of the secretary bureau of the Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea, the counterpart to South Korea’s Minister of Unification. She has experience working on North-South relations and has been involved with talks since the 2000 Inter-Korean Summit. Kim has been part of several delegations to visit South Korea, including during the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics. In 2019, it was reported that she, along with several other delegates to the Hanoi Summit, faced detention and investigation following the lack of the summit’s success.
  • Kim Yo Jong serves as her brother’s de facto right-hand (wo)man, and has been given broader responsibilities within the Politburo, where she has been an alternate member since April 2020. South Korea’s National Intelligence Service claims that Kim Jong Un has delegated part of his authority to aides, including his sister, to “oversee state affairs,” although it is unclear what this means in practice. South Korean and US media has speculated why she hasn’t appeared in public since late July. She was not seen at two key Political Bureau meetings on August 13 and August 25. Some analysts have suggested that she is lying low to decrease suspicion that Kim Jong Un has ceded too much authority to her because of ill health. It is just as possible that the Kim family is limiting their exposure to the public as part of anti-epidemic measures.
  • Pak Myong Sun has a leading role in economic affairs, and is likely the head of the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP) Light Industry Department—the third woman to hold this position in North Korea’s history and the second not related to Kim Il Sung or Kim Jong Il. Pak Myong Sun and Kim Yo Jong are currently the only women in the Politburo.
  • Ri Sol Ju, Kim Jong Un’s wife, was conferred the ceremonial political title of “First Lady” of North Korea in 2018 ahead of summits with South Korea and the United States, presumably to match the titles of Kim Jung-sook and Melania Trump, the first ladies of South Korea and the United States, respectively. The title hadn’t been used since 1974, when it was used to refer to Kim Il Sung’s second wife. She accompanies Kim Jong Un at domestic political meetings like the Party meetings as well as site visits and summits with foreign leaders.

Implications of Elite Female Leadership

It is sometimes assumed that greater inclusion of women may change policy content. That may be the case in democracies, but the increased participation of North Korean women in elite politics does not necessarily indicate change to the broader social or political systems. Studies of political influence in other authoritarian and hybrid regimes suggest that women’s inclusion in national politics actually reproduces—not challenges—norms, representation and control mechanisms that reinforce existing political institutions.

In North Korea, successful female political leaders have toed the party line closely. Choe Son Hui has drawn a tough line on the possibility of dialogue with the United States. One of the “prime authors” of the plan for sanctions relief, Kim Song Hye, reportedly worked closely with Kim Yo Jong in the lead-up to the Hanoi Summit and the visit to South Korea during the Winter Olympics. Hyon Song Wol leads North Korea’s cultural diplomacy activities, bringing delegations of North Korean artists to South Korea and China. And Kim Yo Jong worked as a hardline counterbalance to Kim Jong Un’s earlier engagement with US and South Korean leaders, sending confusing messages via the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).[7]

North Korean women have played a strong role in neighborhood politics since the founding of the country and have been at the forefront of changes in the local economy since the Chollima movement started in the 1950s, not to mention their important role in marketization following the Great Famine. For now, it is noteworthy the extent to which women do work in high-level positions in varied sectors of politics, diplomacy and the economy. It seems that at the very least, being female is not a disqualifier for gaining influence in Kim Jong Un’s regime.

  1. [1]

    Kyung Ae Park, “Women and Revolution in North Korea,” Pacific Affairs, 65, no. 4 (Winter 1992-1993): 527-545.

  2. [2]

    Jae-Cheon Lim, Kim Jong-il’s Leadership of North Korea (London: Routledge, 2008).

  3. [3]

    Jing-sung Jang, Dear Leader: My Escape from North Korea, trans. Shirley Lee (New York: 37Ink/Atria, 2014).

  4. [4]

    Lim, 2008.

  5. [5]

    Jung Pak, Becoming Kim Jong Un: A Former CIA Officer’s Insights Into North Korea’s Enigmatic Young Dictator (New York: Random House, 2020).

  6. [6]

    See: Ken Gause, “North Korea’s Political System in the Transition Era: The Role and Influence of the Party Apparatus,” in North Korea in Transition: Politics, Economy, and Society, ed. Kyung-Ae Park and Scott Snyder (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield, 2013); and Peter M. Beck, “North Korea in 2010: Provocations and Succession,” Asian Survey. 51, no. 1 (2011): 33-40.

  7. [7]

    “Press Statement by Kim Yo Jong, First Vice Department Director of Central Committee of Workers’ Party of Korea,” KCNA, July 10, 2020.

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