I’ve been getting a lot of emails in the last couple of days asking “What do I think is going to happen to North Korea if Kim Jong Un passes?”
To answer that question is as complex as North Korea is itself and requires a history refresher dating back to 1945.
The history of North Korea began at the end of World War II in 1945. The surrender of Japan led to the division of Korea at the 38th parallel with the Soviet Union occupying the north, and the United States occupying the south. The Soviet Union and the United States failed to agree on a way to unify the country, and in 1948 they established two separate governments – the Soviet-aligned Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Western-aligned Republic of Korea – each claiming to be the legitimate government of all of Korea.
Parliamentary elections were held for the first Supreme People’s Assembly of the soon-to-be established Democratic People’s Republic of Korea on August 25, 1948. Organized by the People’s Committee of North Korea, the elections saw 572 deputies elected, of which 212 were from North Korea and 360 from South Korea.
In 1950 the Korean War broke out. After much destruction, the war ended with a stalemate. The division at the 38th parallel.
was replaced by the Korean Demilitarized Zone. Tension between the two sides continued. Out of the rubble North Korea built an industrialized command economy.
Kim Il Sung led North Korea until his death in 1994. He developed a pervasive personality cult and steered the country on an independent course in accordance with the principle of self-reliance. However, with natural disasters and the collapse of the Soviet Bloc in 1991, North Korea went into a severe economic crisis. Kim Il Sung’s son, Kim Jong il, succeeded him, and was in turn succeeded by his son, Kim Jong Un. Amid international alarm, North Korea developed nuclear missiles. In 2018, Kim Jong Un made a sudden peace overture towards South Korea and the United States.
So what would happen if Kim Jong Un passes? The first thing to know is that the country is not going to collapse, albeit, there could be civil unrest, but I believe that even if that did happen, it would be very short lived and things would continue on as they have been.
The conventional wisdom is that a woman could never ascend to the leadership of North Korea, a country stuck in a time warp of passé fashions, hairdos, music, and social mores. A toxic mix of Confucianism and totalitarianism indentures women to their husbands, to their in-laws, and, ultimately, to a male dominated regime. With a few exceptions – the best known being the vice foreign minister, Choe Son Hui – North Korea’s senior cadres are almost entirely male. The Supreme People’s Assembly – which currently has six hundred and eighty-seven members – is supposed to set aside twenty per cent of its seats for women, but the percentage has frequently dipped lower. And the primary function of these token deputies seems to be to brighten the optics, by wearing the jewel-toned, floor-length Korean gowns best known by the South Korean term hanbok. Since 1948, North Korea has been ruled by three men – the founder, his son, and his grandson – but, nevertheless, it is now conceivable that the fourth man could be a woman. The most obvious successor is his thirty something sister, Kim Yo Jong.
It’s an open question whether the North Korean elites would accept a woman, but they would have a more difficult time accepting somebody outside the Kim family. Kim Yo Jong is the youngest known grandchild of Kim Il Sung, carrying what North Koreans revere as a pure bloodline that originated on Mount Paektu, a volcano on the border with China, which is the mythical birthplace of the Korean people. She was reportedly a favorite of her father, Kim Jong Il, who ruled from 1994 until his death, in 2011, and who, according to a former Russian official, Konstantin Pulikovsky, may have had a more enlightened attitude toward women than some of the North Korean elite. Pulikovsky, who traveled with Kim Jong Il by train and later wrote a memoir about the experience, told interviewers that the leader praised the intelligence of his daughter, while deriding his sons as “idle blockheads”.
If you look at the dynasty’s family tree, it appears that there are a number of Kim’s, males and females, but many have been exiled or purged, or worse; Kim’s oldest half brother, Kim Jong Nam, was assassinated in Malaysia, in 2017. Kim Jong Il had seven children with four women, but Yo Jong and Jong Un were born to the same mother, and spent at least part of their childhood together with another brother in Bern, Switzerland, where they attended elementary school under the guise of being the children of a North Korean diplomat.
Yo Jong didn’t attract much attention until Kim Jong Il’s funeral procession in Pyongyang on December 28, 2011. A pale, slim, almost waif-like figure, she was so little known that analysts at first speculated that she might be Kim Jong Un’s wife. She subsequently started popping up in official videos, moving gradually from the background to center stage. She made a well publicized international debut when she attended the opening of the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, upstaging U.S. representative, Vice-President Mike Pence and earning the title in the South Korean media of “North Korean Ivanka Trump”. They marveled at her barely-there makeup and her lack of bling. They commented on her plain black outfits and simple purse. They noted the flower-shaped clip that kept her hair back in a no-nonsense style.
Unlike Kim Jong Un’s wife, the glamorous Ri Sol Ju, Yo Jong appears in public wearing ladylike heels and dark suits, with an occasional pussy-bow blouse. She has often been seen in meetings carrying gifts, taking notes, or fetching pens for her brother. At the Hanoi summit with President Trump last year, she held an ashtray to collect his cigarette butts. A subservient but crucial task, since the North Koreans are compulsive about not leaving behind any trace of leadership DNA. Nonetheless, the official titles conferred on Yo Jong leave little doubt that she is on the ascent. In 2014, she was identified as the deputy director of the ruling Workers Party’s department of propaganda and agitation. In 2017, she was made an alternate member of the Politburo, reportedly only the second woman ever to hold that position. The first was Kim Kyong Hui, Kim Jong Il’s sister. More tellingly, the official KCNA news service ran a March 22nd statement attributed to her, thanking Donald Trump for a letter in which he offered cooperation in fighting the corona virus. In the statement, she praised Trump for sending the letter at a time when “big difficulties and challenges lie ahead in the way of developing ties” between the two countries.
Like other members of the ruling family, Yo Jong is at once a highly public figure and a cipher. Her year of birth is variously given as 1987, 1988, or 1989. Some reports claim that her husband is the son of Choe Ryong Hae, the ceremonial head of state. Choe, the second most powerful man in North Korea and is another contender as successor. Perhaps in a joint leadership with Kim Yo Jong herself. Others say it’s more likely that her husband is another relative of Choe’s, perhaps his nephew.
As for her education and qualifications, she is thought to have returned to Europe for her studies, perhaps joining a coterie of North Korean princeliness who were living in a building that the regime owns in Paris’s Sixteenth Arrondissement. She later acquired a degree from Kim Il Sung University, either in engineering or computer science. If, in fact, she is on tap to be the next leader, expect to see North Korea’s propagandists hurriedly churning out praise of her intellect, character, and accomplishments. They had to do the same with Kim Jong Un, who was in his mid-twenties, with a negligible resume, when he emerged as his ailing father’s successor, about two years before his death.
Nonetheless, a woman could be a tough sell. I do not think the people will allow it. Neither the people, nor the officials. There are women in high positions in some fields, but mainly in women’s organizations or the arts and in general, they are very rare. North Korea’s better universities are reported to maintain a quota that restricts female enrollment to thirty per cent, according to “Women of North Korea,” a study by a South Korean government think tank published in 2014. Yet North Korean women often do hard manual labor. In the aftermath of a brutal famine, in the nineteen-nineties, they became the most visible figures in the marketplace, running small stalls and kiosks in part because jobs are assigned by the government and it is easier to excuse women from their official jobs, but their importance in the market economy has not elevated their status.
North Korea is so outlandishly sexist, despite the fact that they are supposed to be a revolutionary society. When it comes to gender relations, it is like South Korea decades ago. Women have not fared well in politics in South Korea either, a nation that is routinely toward the bottom of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s list of developed countries’ rankings on gender equality. South Korea’s only female President, Park Geun-hye was impeached in 2017 and is now in prison serving a twenty-five year sentence for bribery, extortion and abuse of power, which some maintain is harsher treatment than accorded men who committed comparable offenses.
The confluence of recent events might leave the North Koreans with little choice about which Kim they elevate. Among the adult males in the family, Kim Pyong Il, a half brother of Kim Jong Il, spent three decades posted in Europe as a diplomat in semi-exile; although he returned to Pyongyang last year, he might be seen as a rival to the current ruling line. Kim Jong Un himself has children. His oldest, a daughter, is about eight; his son is younger and there may be a third. Jong Un’s older brother, Kim Jong Chol, best known as a rock-and-roll groupie who once tried to invite Eric Clapton to Pyongyang, is reported to have even more serious health issues, and was dismissed by his own father as being “too girly” for consideration in the succession. That leaves the last man standing quite possibly to be a woman.