I heard that your country is under a myriad of difficult circumstances. I understand that prolonged sanctions on North Korea and the suspension of Sino-North Korean trade are greatly reducing exports. It’s the planting season, but you hardly have enough fertilizer and equipment. You even had to reduce the number of national projects you can work on – from 15 projects to just five.

I saw that you issued a statement in this complex and difficult time, where you condemned defectors sending leaflets to North Koreans as “idiots,” “dogs,” and “human rubbish no better than beasts.” You said the reason was because “those scums recklessly berated our utmost dignity [Kim Jong Un] and carelessly made fun of our nuclear ambitions.”

You did not forget to blackmail the South Korean government, either, with threats to scrap South Korean tourism to Mount Kumgang, completely dismantle the Kaesung Industrial Complex, close the Inter-Korean Liaison Office, and pull out of the Inter-Korean Military Accords – unless, of course, the leaflets stop.

What unsettled me, however, was that the words used in your statement do not fit the calm image projected through the media. Wouldn’t it have been more persuasive if you had used more sophisticated and polished expressions and words? I don’t believe, of course, that you wrote the statement yourself.

I find it difficult to understand why you issued the statement in your name when you could have had a low or mid-ranking ranking cadre from the military or the United Front Department sign and publish it through KCNA or Uriminzokkiri. In my view, your latest statement only diminished your dignity and shows that you lack the judgement to conduct government affairs.

You have steadily expanded your role and authority over recent years. For example, you became first deputy director of the party’s Propaganda and Agitation Department and the Organization and Guidance Department. These days, you are managing important work for North Korea’s communist party and the country. You are in charge of evaluating the progress of North Korea’s five-year economic development plan and leading the review of the country’s bond program, which is aimed at refilling the country’s foreign currency coffers. Now, you are even taking the lead in activities aimed at South Korea by writing about South Korea’s policies toward North Korea in the Rodong Sinmun with a view to politically pressure South Korean leaders.

I don’t know exactly how you have been able to rapidly strengthen your political power in North Korea. I am aware, however, that your brother, Kim Jong Un, has had a cardiovascular condition going back to 2014. His condition began to deteriorate last summer, and he eventually underwent a cardiovascular procedure in April. Given that, it may take some time for him to recover, both mentally and physically.

After such a procedure, Kim will need to quit smoking, drink less and keep a balanced, low-salt diet. He will also need to workout at least 30 minutes a day, reduce stress, and be cheerful in his daily life. Regular checkups on his blood pressure, sugar and cholesterol levels will be required, and he will need to keep an eye on his weight. All of this, of course, takes time to become just another part of daily life.

Physical illness can cause emotional troubles: following the procedure, Kim may feel lethargic or have mood swings. North Korea has suffered huge drops in exports, increasing commodity prices, issues surrounding the country’s nuclear program, the coronavirus, and a lack of money in the country’s coffers. Now, Kim faces health problems. Nothing seems to be going well, which could cause him to suffer from psychological pressures. It may take time for things to get back on track.

I heard that, before the procedure, Kim deputized Kim Yong Nam to manage state organizations and for you to run party-related activities. You seem to be in charge of the party and the country while your brother is recovering.

Whether you wanted or not, you are now a key figure in North Korean politics and will likely to continue to have more power and take on more responsibility. This is the time for you to seriously contemplate the right way to serve your people and your country.

As someone who has spent the past 20-odd years working to improve conditions in North Korea, I have two things I would like to tell you.

First, while you are obviously livid over how defectors smeared the “utmost dignity” – aka, your brother – I think North Korea’s “utmost dignity” actually is the 25 million souls who live in North Korea. I hope that you become a leader who fights for the rights of her people, rather than just to protect the rights of the country’s leader.

In March 2018, North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun chastised international society’s efforts to improve the human rights of North Koreans in an article that said that “sacred human rights are being abused by some groups to fulfill their filthy agendas.”

I don’t know what you and your brother think “sacred human rights” are, but the world is working to improve human rights in North Korea because it wants North Koreans to enjoy the same rights as you and your brother.

International society is working to give North Koreans the right to go to the schools they want, work in the places they want, freely watch whatever dramas or movies they want, listen to the songs they want, and have the freedom to use the Internet – something even two-year-olds are allowed to do in many other countries. The international community is also fighting for North Koreans to travel to other countries whenever they want, to work for their families in ways they want, and to live in a country where they don’t fear being sent to political camps or are executed with anti-aircraft guns for complaining about their leader or the government. The world’s efforts are aimed at giving North Koreans the same rights you and your brother are already enjoying. If you truly believe these rights are filthy, then you and your brother should give them up.

The second thing I would like to tell you is that South Korean society is a free, democratic society where people’s freedom and happiness are considered the highest priority. The values, and rules, of a free, democratic society mean that one is still respected and protected even when he or she is discontented with the government. If you want the South Korean government and South Koreans to respect your leader and your country, you need to respect the values and rights of the South Korean government and South Koreans, too.

I believe that there is always a way forward if you put the happiness of your people and the development of your country at the forefront of your mind during even the most difficult of times.

June 5, 2020

From Seoul,

Lee Kwang Baek

President, Daily NK & Unification Media Group (UMG)

*Translated by Seongjin Park