What the North Korean dictatorship Kim Yo-jong is representing at the Pyeongchang Winter Games is really like
Faster, fitter, stronger— but little equality for women.
The Pyeongchang Winter Games have been a soft power coup for Kim Jong-un, thanks to his dictatorial regime’s savvy use of women to spruce up North Korea’s image. Rocket Man, as President Donald Trump famously dubbed Kim, sent his photogenic 30-year-old sister Kim Yo-jong and an all-female cheerleading squad as emissaries to the South— a move that won the hearts of social media users and some Western commentators.
Take for instance a CNN article about the younger Kim “stealing the show” at the Olympics, or a Washington Post report comparing her to Ivanka Trump. The excitement was no doubt compounded by Kim Yo-jong’s extension of an invitation from her brother for South Korea president Moon Jae-in to visit Pyeongyang, the first time in recent years the North has initiated such talks.
“She’s a novelty item. The princess of North Korea came to town and unveiled herself for the first time, so it’s natural to be both curious and impressed,” says Katharine Moon, a political science professor at Wellesley College, noting that her father Kim Jong-Il had long groomed her for power. “But she is part of that regime, part of that family.”
Indeed, a pushback against the mini-lovefest around Kim Yo-jong is gathering force. “Morning Joe” co-host Willie Geist, who is in Pyeongchang covering the games, noted that South Koreans were more subdued than suggested. “Something about N.K. killing, starving, & imprisoning its people while threatening South Korea with nuclear annihilation,” he wrote in a tweet that went viral. Indeed, Kim Yo-jong herself is sanctioned by the United States for human rights abuses.
I can report South Koreans here in Pyeongchang are not as enthralled with Kim Yo Jong and the North Korean cheerleaders as it seems some media are back home.
Something about N.K. killing, starving, & imprisoning its people while threatening South Korea with nuclear annihilation.
— Willie Geist (@WillieGeist) February 11, 2018
When it comes to women’s rights specifically, the situation in North Korea is nothing to envy either. Take for instance, access to the political power. Throughout its 70-year history, only two women— one of them Kim Yo-jong, the other her aunt— have served in its ruling Politburo. Women hold about a fifth of seats in the North Korea’s legislature, a figure similar to the U.S. Congress, but it’s largely a toothless, rubber stamp body.
Due to limitations on free movement and a free press, it can be difficult to ascertain what exactly happens in North Korea. But multiple accounts suggest that for females outside the elite, life is even worse. One defector who survived the totalitarian regime’s gulags told the UN Security Council last year of being forced to have an abortion for carrying a child suspected to be of mixed race. “Sexual and gender-based violence against women is prevalent throughout all areas of society,” wrote a UN human rights commission of North Korea in 2014. “Victims are not afforded protection from the State, support services or recourse to justice.”
North Korean diplomatic representatives didn’t return a request for comment. The government officially takes the position that female citizens have the same rights as men.
While North Korea has enacted progressive laws on gender equality as far back as 1946, it is ultimately a “highly militarized society, always on guard for a potential war with the U.S.,” says Suzy Kim, an Asian history professor at Rutgers University. “Whenever a society is militarized, traditional masculinity is valued over femininity, placing men in greater positions of power, which works against greater gender equality.”
North Korea has maintained a “traditional view of women as lower and obedient. South Korean women have been pushing and fighting their way out of it, while North Korean women never had that way out,” says Moon, who had a recent conversation with a defector who told her the biggest surprise living in the South was the women. “The word he used meant tough, almost obnoxious. He said it was radically different from women of the North, who are so traditional.”
And for all the juxtaposition of Kim Yo-jong with Ivanka Trump, who ran her eponymous fashion line before joining her father’s administration, the latter has thrived in a market economy. That doesn’t really exist in North Korea, despite some nascent small businesses, many female-led. “Women have managed to get more power within their family by bringing in the income,” says Kim, the professor.
But even then, that’s largely due to the failings of the state. “Their husband’s income is just not enough,” says Moon. Among the elite, “expectations of a good life are rising and for the lower middle class, they work because their husband have lost their factory jobs. The production system is so antiquated [that] many women come and participate” in other jobs.
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