On Jan. 25, Kim Kyong Hui, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s paternal aunt (and Kim Jong Il’s sister), appeared publicly for the first time in six years following her husband Jang Song Taek’s execution in 2013. North Korean state media reported that Kim accompanied Kim Jong Un to a Lunar New Year concert on that day. Her appearance is a sign that Kim Jong Un still faces obstacles to securing total control over his country.
Some have suggested that Kim Kyong Hui’s reappearance means that Kim Jong Un has finally begun to stand alone. In other words, only because he felt secure in his firm grasp on power did he reintroduce her to the public eye in spite of their thorny relationship. Others have claimed that the move was aimed at drumming up public support for the “frontal breakthrough offensive” officially announced at the 5th Plenary Meeting of the 7th Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), by playing up ideas of unity in the Mount Paektu Bloodline and familial harmony.
On some level, these analyses make sense. North Korea currently appears to be stepping up efforts to unite the country, holding public rallies reaffirming the “frontal breakthrough offensive” proposed by Kim Jong Un. Bringing in a figure as symbolic as Kim Kyong Hui at such a time would not only consolidate Kim Jong Un’s autocratic rule even further, it would accentuate anti-American sentiment, impose austerity on the people, and provide justification for the “frontal breakthrough offensive.”
Yet from another perspective, Kim Kyong Hui’s reemergence speaks to the fact that Kim Jong Un’s level of control over the regime is still imperfect. Firstly, the timing of Kim Kyong Hui’s reappearance is suspicious. If Kim Jong Un truly has taken total command of the North Korean regime and wanted to put his confidence on display, doing so immediately after announcing the completion of North Korea’s nuclear armament in late November 2017 would have been much more timely. At the time, tensions between North Korea and the US were so high that war seemed imminent and North Korea repeatedly emphasized its “strategic position.” Wouldn’t this have been the best time to put forward someone like Kim Kyong Hui, an icon of the Mount Paektu bloodline, so that she could elevate Kim Jong Un’s greatness and maximize regime unity?
INCREASING DISSATISFACTION AMONG THE PEOPLE
Yet with little to show for the denuclearization negotiations with the US, North Koreans are increasingly dissatisfied with the current state of affairs. The fact that Kim Jong Un, now on the defensive, summoned someone as symbolic as Kim Kyong Hui indicates that the situation is precarious. It seems that if Kim Jong Un really wanted to put his confidence in standing alone and achieving full regime control on display, he wouldn’t need to bring Kim Kyong Hui back into the picture. That Kim Jong Un needs to borrow Kim Kyong Hui’s cachet shows that things aren’t going well for him.
Secondly, Kim Kyong Hui’s reemergence can also be read as a sign that North Korea is moving toward hardline conservatism. Not long ago, North Korea appointed Ri Son Gwon as the new minister of foreign affairs. A close confidante of Kim Yong Chol, who was until recently the head of the United Front Department (UFD), Ri is seen as part of the same group of hardliners. In this context, reintroducing Kim Kyong Hui, a “hardline reactionary,” can be seen as a roundabout expression of Kim Jong Un’s will to intensify the fight against “non-socialism” and “anti-socialism.” Of course, with no official title in the WPK, it is highly unlikely that Kim Kyong Hui will actually exercise any political influence.
KIM JONG UN’S WEAK POWER BASE
Nonetheless, when taking into account the symbolism embodied by Kim Kyong Hui, Kim Jong Un has revealed the extent in which he wants to impose control over his society. Yet if Kim felt secure in his own ability to rally the country around his authority, he would not need to employ the symbolism of Kim Kyong Hui. This, again, suggests that his power base is weak.
That Kim Jong Un is suddenly emphasizing internal unity, frontal breakthrough, and the greatness of the Mount Paektu bloodline, shows how unfavorable both the international and domestic state of affairs are to him. With North Koreans impatiently waiting for international sanctions to be lifted, propaganda efforts for overcoming the crisis with austerity measures and escalated anti-Americanism have limited effectiveness.
These propaganda efforts are meant to hold the critical turning point for a little longer; however, when they finally lose steam, North Korea may find itself caught up in an immense wave of change. The South Korean government, for its part, must take all potential situations that could occur in North Korea into account.
The author is a researcher at the Institute for North Korean Studies, the oldest research academy of its kind in South Korea.
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