The Dear Sister Disappears

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A quick break at marching practice North Korea
A quick break at marching practice North Korea. Photo: Joseph A Ferris III/flickr.

TOKYO – The Korean peninsula is stirring. In December, South Koreans will go to the polls to choose President Lee Myung-bak’s successor in what is currently a three-way contest. Meanwhile, China is seeking to seize opportunistically on the recent flare-up of a territorial dispute between South Korea and Japan to court the government in Seoul. But, perhaps most important, one of the pillars of the North Korean dictatorship may now be cracking – at a time when the country must once again cope with a severe, man-made food shortage.

On September 25, the South Korean media reported rumors that Kim Kyong-hui, the sister of the late “Dear Leader,” Kim Jong-il – and the aunt of North Korea’s twenty-something leader Kim Jong-un – was seriously ill. The reports have not been confirmed, but her name was missing from the list of attendees at a recent Supreme People’s Assembly. In secretive North Korea, that seems to be a clear sign that something is afoot. Singapore and China have been mentioned in Asian intelligence circles as possible treatment locations for Kim Kyong-hui.

After the death of her brother, Kim Jong-il, last year, Kim Kyong-hui was often seen accompanying her nephew on his inspection tours around the country. Her sudden disappearance has sparked much speculation about the fragility of the “Young General’s” regime; despite her notorious drinking habits, she was widely seen as the power behind Kim Jong-un’s throne.

The truth about her disappearance will, undoubtedly, remain murky for some time. Kim Jong-il was said to have died suddenly of a heart attack, though he had been dying of cancer for some time – a subterfuge aimed at concealing Kim Kyong-hui’s de facto leadership during her brother’s cancer treatments. Moreover, before he died, Kim Jong-il made a supreme effort to prepare the ground for his sister to continue as the key decision-maker, even under Kim Jong-un. He removed leaders who could potentially oppose her, including such senior figures as Lee Yong-chul and Lee Je-gang.

Protecting the Kim dynasty’s rule has become the regime’s alpha and omega. For Kim Kyong-hui, this has meant overseeing proposals from the Korean Workers’ Party, the military, and the government. It has meant revising, supplementing, and ratifying other policies, as well as setting the KWP’s general direction. Once policies are set, her task is to monitor and oversee their execution.

In other words, in North Korea, many of the most routine decisions taken by states elsewhere cannot be left to just anyone – particularly not to those outside the Kim bloodline. Any decision that could affect the regime’s survival is taken within the dynasty; and, ultimately, in terms of legitimacy, background, experience, and competence, Kyong-hui is viewed as the only suitable decision-maker in the Kim clan.

It is a dizzying life of highly centralized command and control. To succeed, three lines of power emanate from Kim Kyong-hui – to the Party, the military, and the central government, with each line branching into the smallest corners of North Korean life.

Yet Kim Kyong-hui’s ruling style is quite different from that of her late brother. Kim Jong-il preferred military rule, and pushed the army to the forefront. Kim Kyong-hui has returned to the methods of her father, the dynasty’s founder, Kim Il-sung, who viewed party control as the most convenient and reliable means of exercising power. Particularly for a North Korean woman, party control is a far wieldier tool to elicit the type of absolute loyalty that the Kims need.

Kim Jong-un has done some things that were previously unseen in North Korea – frankly admitting the failure of a missile test, for example, and cavorting with Disney’s Mickey Mouse, a symbol of enemy American culture, while building amusement parks of his own. But no one should mistake this for a Pyongyang Spring. Indeed, the regime’s efforts to hide, yet again, a severe food shortage demonstrate that its core values have not changed in the least.

Maintaining this policy stasis is the great challenge facing Kim Jong-un and Kim Kyong-hui. For, although government is now clearly centered on the party, the regime could yet unravel, and perhaps collapse, if the food shortage is not resolved and other power structures decide to step into the breach.

Given this risk, Kyong-hui’s poor health is a significant hindrance. Will she run out of time, or will the food shortage be resolved first? For now, the fate of the Korean peninsula hinges on the health of one woman.

Copyright Project Syndicate

Yuriko Koike, Japan’s former Minister of Defense and National Security Adviser, is a former chairwoman of Japan’s Liberal Democrat Party, and currently an opposition leader in the Diet.

For further information on the topic, please view the following publications from our partners:

China’s Post-Cheonan and -Yeonpyeong Policy toward North Korea

Seeing from Above: The Geopolitics of Satellite Vision and North Korea

Faltering Korea–China Relations with the Emergence of the G2 Era

For more information on issues and events that shape our world please visit the ISN’s Security Watch and Editorial Plan.

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