On Saturday, Kim Yo Jong, the influential sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, announced the nation’s decision to take military action against “enemy” South Korea.
In a statement released by North Korean state media outlet Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), Kim Yo Jong announced that it was “high time to surely break with the South Korean authorities.”
“By using my power endorsed by the supreme leader [Kim Jong Un], our party and the country, I give instructions to the arm of the department responsible for dealing with the enemy to decisively take further action,” she declared.
This statement follows a series of condemnations issued over the last few weeks by the North over South Korea’s failure to contain activists from launching balloons filled with anti-Pyongyang (the capital of North Korea) leaflets across the border.
While Kim Yo Jong did not provide specific details about what military actions would be taken and when, she appeared to issue threats geared toward the inter-Korean Liaison Office – the de facto embassy that sits at the mutual border acting as a channel of communication between the two Koreas in the absence of formal diplomatic relations.
“Before long, a tragic scene of the useless north-south joint liaison office completely collapsed would be seen,” read the statement.
“It is necessary to make them keenly feel what they have done.”
The South responds
On Sunday, senior South Korean security officials convened in an emergency meeting to discuss the threats from their Northern neighbor and “[review] the current situation on the Korean Peninsula.”
“The government considers the current situation as grave,” the Unification Ministry said in a press statement released after the emergency meeting led by the head of the National Security Council, Chung Eui Yong.
“Both the South and the North must make efforts to stick to all inter-Korean agreements,” they insisted, referring to the 2018 inter-Korean summit which committed both Koreas to cease all hostile acts.
Since the summit and despite the agreement however, activists and North Korean defectors have continued to send leaflets across the border.
“The North is angry over what it perceives as the South’s disregard of the inter-Korean agreements and its failure to push Washington to ease sanctions on itself,” said Professor Yang Moo Jin of the University of North Korea studies, further citing unresolved summit meetings between North Korea and the United States which intended to denuclearize the hermit kingdom in exchange for the alleviation of economic sanctions.
Kim Yo Jong’s growing influence
Throughout these developments, Kim Jong Un has kept a low profile. And despite being the highest authority in the totalitarian nation, state media have made no reference by name to the North Korean leader.
Instead, the spotlight has fallen on his sister, Kim Yo Jong.
While North Korea is known for its deeply patriarchal norms, Kim Yo Jong has taken a more substantive public role in the country’s political affairs, particularly in regards to national security and inter-Korean matters. Her involvement in the most recent disputes has further cemented her position as a high-profile figure in the nation’s politics.
This also follows Kim Jong Un’s return from his weekslong disappearance, which prompted rumors about his death and theories about the future of North Korean leadership if something happens to the supreme leader.
“If something bad happens to Kim Jong-un within 10 years, there is no doubt that Kim Yo-jong will be a key factor in determining the direction of North Korean change until Kim Yong-un’s son becomes an adult,” said Lim Jae Chon, a professor of North Korean studies at Korea University.
However, some believe that it is unlikely for her to assume her brother’s position due to her gender. Senior fellow at the Cato Institute, an American think tank, said that “Kim Yo-jong’s power appears to be purely derivative, bestowed by her brother.”
“She might play a role in a collective leadership and be trotted out publicly for appropriate events, but she is unlikely to emerge as No. 1, let alone the only one,” he added.
Rachel Minyoung Lee, a former North Korea open source analyst with the US government suggests that her growing presence could just be because her brother respects her abilities.
“It is too early to tell what Kim Jong-un’s intentions are … He may be boosting his sister’s profile not necessarily with the purpose of grooming her as his successor but because he truly believes in giving her leadership opportunities,” she said.
“State media described her as being in charge of inter-Korean affairs and giving orders. This was a deliberate move not only to inform the world that she is in charge of inter-Korean affairs, but to further elevate her role in the party.”
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