Book Review: The Sister
By Sung-Yoon Lee. PublicAffairs Hatchette Book Group, 2023. 304 pp.
When I first heard of this book regarding Kim Yo Jong, a figure of growing prominence inside the North Korean regime, I was intrigued. She was obviously the sister of the Supreme Leader, but her profile had recently begun to expand beyond just being a gatekeeper and source of Mt. Paektu grandeur. The fact that someone had taken it upon themselves to write an entire book about her was impressive, although I did question whether there were enough sources available to do such a biography justice. After reading the book, I can recommend it for the novice, someone who is interested in learning the basic history of Kim Jong Un’s North Korea. Seasoned Pyongyang watchers, however, will not find much new in this book. The Sister relies on a well-worn narrative that already resides in the public realm, and the insights it does provide are often based on flights of speculation and armchair psychoanalysis.
When I wrote my 2015 book North Korean House of Cards, information on Kim Yo Jong was fleeting. There were some nuggets to be found in defector interviews, but it was like chasing shadows. She played a role in the regime. She occupied a privileged space inside her brother’s inner circle by virtue of her birth. But how much latitude there was for her to grow was a big question. Then 2018 rolled around, and her role as an ambassador, mouthpiece and power player began to come into focus. Kim Yo Jong was not just another actor within the Hermit Kingdom. She was someone of weight. Someone to focus on.
During my last trip to the peninsula in July 2023, I was able to talk to several Pyongyang watchers who focus on leadership politics. It is true, Kim Yo Jong’s role in the regime has grown. She has apparently amassed enough power and influence to step into a leadership role, at least temporarily, if something were to happen to Kim Jong Un. She would be able to serve on a regent structure or as a protector for his daughter, Kim Ju Ae. Whether she could do this for an extended period of time, however, is still in doubt. Whether she would contest Ri Sol Ju’s progeny’s claim to power is also not clear.
In his book The Sister, Sung-Yoon Lee attempts to construct a fully fleshed biography of this enigmatic woman. But in doing so, he strays beyond what we can say for certain. The Kim Yo Jong in his book is an evil character with decision-making power that would make her directly complicit with the wrongs perpetuated by the regime on its people, as well as responsible for the pariah status North Korea occupies in the international arena. In essence, she is a female co-dictator and “the most dangerous woman in the world.” In this author’s opinion, to ascribe this amount of power to Kim Yo Jong misses the mark. She no doubt plays a role inside the regime, one that is growing in prominence. She has access to her brother and is one of his most trusted advisers. But there are limits on what she can do and how far she can go because, in the end, she serves at the pleasure of the Supreme Leader.
“The Most Dangerous Woman in the World”
To support his thesis, Lee provides a number of instances where Kim Yo Jong has seemingly pushed the envelope in international decorum, slinging invective at the US and South Korea, the two perceived great threats to the regime. On top of this are stories of the young princess’ presumed authority to throw her weight around, even within the leadership. At one point, the author notes that on a whim, she could order the execution of members of the Central Committee, even though she ranked formally at the bottom of the party institution. While it is correct that informal power trumps formal power inside the North Korean regime, there are also checks and balances, especially when it comes to the leadership. Often misunderstood by outsiders, even the Supreme Leader must be careful in how he wields power lest he begin to rub up against legitimacy within the upper reaches of the leadership. If Kim Yo Jong were to take it upon herself to execute people without the say-so of her brother, she could create unwanted tension and instability at the top, akin to what happened when Jang Song Taek attempted to establish his own power base early in the Kim Jong Un era.
The author time and again points out how Kim Yo Jong was charming and engaging in 2018 when she led a delegation to the opening ceremony of the Olympic games in Pyeongchang, and then after the fall of summit talks in Hanoi became a foul-mouthed, invective-spewing critic of both the US and South Korea, threatening to move troops into the demilitarized zone or even attack the Alliance with nuclear weapons. He suggests that if she was ever to become Supreme Leader, she might prove to be “fiercer and more ruthless than her brother” (25). This fits well with the narrative that Kim Yo Jong is a scheming political operative, wooing enemies on the one hand while threatening them on the other—something seemingly out of character with the young twenty-something picking flowers during guidance inspections only years earlier.
A more likely explanation is that she is a woman who has been brought into the ranks of power and educated in how to support her brother. She has authority and latitude as the powerful vice director of the Korean Workers’ Party (KWP) Propaganda and Agitation Department. She is responsible for crafting Kim Jong Un’s image. She takes responsibility for carrying sensitive messages to South Korea, be they offers of engagement or reading the riot act. But this should not be mistaken for power on her part. She acts at the behest of the Supreme Leader, who at times has punished her, removed her formal titles, and banished her from the public arena for education and refinement when she has made a misstep. On occasion, Kim Jong Un has stepped in to walk back her threats. This allegedly occurred in 2020 when Kim Jong Un walked back from his sister’s rhetoric about military conflict over the South’s release of leaflets. Whether this was by design or because Kim Yo Jong was too zealous in executing her orders is not clear. What is clear is that Kim Yo Jong does not have the power to personally make good on her threats, and she most definitely does not have command and control of the Korean People’s Armed Forces.
An Unfinished Portrait
A fundamental flaw in the book is that it ascribes state goals to the Kim family’s objectives. This is particularly true in chapter three, in which the author provides an overview of North Korean strategy to eventually reunify the peninsula under Pyongyang’s rule. It talks about the Korean War and the steadfast commitment to exerting North Korean rule south of the demilitarized zone (DMZ). It holds out the often-touted strategies of force and blackmail as ways to achieve this ultimate goal. While this is a goal of the regime, the author fails to note that it moved from being the driving force behind North Korean strategy to an aspirational goal sometime in the 1980s.
The rush in the 1990s to accelerate the nuclear program, which continues to this day, is part and parcel of a strategy of regime survival, not reunification. Kim Jong Un’s two overarching goals, as were those of his father and grandfather, are regime survival and perpetuation of Kim family rule. Any action that violates these two objectives will simply not be undertaken. This includes escalation (through force or blackmail) that could lead to the US and its allies taking retaliation that would end the regime. Therefore, Kim Yo Jong can make threats on behalf of the regime. But in the end, she understands the Kim family equities. As long as a member of the Kim family, be it Kim Jong Un or Kim Yo Jong, sits atop the leadership in North Korea, it is highly unlikely that reunification of the Korean Peninsula will be on the agenda. It may be proclaimed from the top of Mt. Paektu, but like any echo, it will eventually fall silent.
Other than the obvious conservative point of view of the author, which in part explains the issues above, I think this book provides a useful, if thin, overview of North Korean history of the Kim Jong Un period. It makes a good companion piece to Anna Fifield’s The Great Successor. The narrative Lee presents is not so much a biography of Kim Yo Jong as the story of North Korean politics and foreign policy since Kim Jong Un assumed power in 2012. Sometimes disjointed in the telling, with little solid sourcing, prone to informal and folksy language, and overly focused on the brutality of the regime, the book is a useful read for international relations novices and those interested in the Kim family. The author makes good use of open-source media accounts to delve beyond the surface of events most people only have a headline understanding of. Besides a few claims based on defector testimony, the book provides little new information to the Pyongyang-watching community.
Some of the useful, if well-trodden, information Lee provides is about the Kim family and its role at the pinnacle of the regime by virtue of the Mt. Paektu bloodline. Useful thumbnail sketches of key members of the Kim family can be found in chapter four, entitled “All in the Family.” He separates fact from fiction in the telling of Kim Il Sung’s rise to power, not by virtue of his political and leadership skills, but with the assistance of his Soviet minders who brought him into the cauldron of Korean politics after the end of World War II and the Japanese withdraw from the peninsula. He removes the mythical trappings surrounding Kim Jong Il’s life to reveal a man who was more comfortable exerting power through informal means and somewhat removed from his people. Lee talks about the system of songbun that separates the North Korean population into strata based on loyalty to the regime: Those who can be trusted and those who must be watched. Finally, he highlights the lengths to which the Kim family has twisted the historical narrative to turn the regime from a simple dictatorship to a cult of personality. All of this is worth reading, but it only hits the wavetops to make a point. For anyone interested in delving deep into these topics, there are several books easily accessible in English, such as Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader, Bradley K. Martin’s history of North Korea under the Kim regime, and Marked for Life: North Korea’s Social Classification System by Robert Collins.
Kim Yo Jong serves as a touchstone throughout the book. Chapters devoted to the Kim family and North Korean history have paragraphs seemingly shoehorned into them to show the rise of Kim Jong Un’s sister. This is why I would characterize this book as more a description of the Kim family and North Korean politics under Kim Jong Un than a biography of Kim Yo Jong. A straight-line narrative beginning with the parallels between the Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung funerals and showing Kim Yo Jong’s growth into a figure on the political stage would have been easier to follow and more effective in revealing the dramatic transformation she has undergone, especially in the last few years.
Finally, the book does not really have a conclusion. Although the author tries to put himself in the head of the North Korean princess, giving motivation to her mannerisms and facial expressions, it is surprising that he does not speculate too much on what a post-Kim Jong Un period might look like. He says that Kim Yo Jong is well placed to exercise power for decades, possibly as a successor. But what does that mean? Does Kim Yo Jong have the power and authority to step into her brother’s shoes? Does she have the acumen and relationships throughout the leadership to consolidate her power? Is that something she would want to do, or would she be satisfied serving as a regent to her niece, Ju Ae? Would the military stand for a woman to step into the shoes of the Leader and Commander-in-Chief? These are the questions that intelligence analysts will be wrestling with if Kim Jong Un were to suddenly die or become incapacitated. And how much of a presence Kim Yo Jong would have on the political stage will be a central theme, both for the future of the Kim family and the stability of the North Korean regime.