Close on the heels of Joe Biden’s special envoy to North Korea offering a meeting with no preconditions, a member of the country’s ruling dynasty has tossed cold water on the idea. Rather than hearing from the tyrant himself, Kim Jong-un’s younger sister, Kim Yo Jong spoke to state media outlets and said that the United States’ expectations in terms of restarting negotiations would “plunge them into a greater disappointment.” While she almost certainly cleared the announcement with her brother ahead of time, the general tone makes it sound as if Kim Jong-un regrets his admission that his country is running out of food quickly. He now sees Biden’s offer as a way for America to take advantage of the situation. The most interesting aspect of this announcement, however, might be the fact that Kim Yo Jong is back in her brother’s good graces and is once again being given some administrative responsibilities. (Associated Press)
Hope for a restart of nuclear talks flared briefly after Kim Jong Un said last week that his country must be ready for both dialogue and confrontation, though more for confrontation. U.S. National Security adviser Jake Sullivan called Kim’s comments an “interesting signal.”
On Tuesday, Kim Yo Jong derided Sullivan’s response.
“It seems that the U.S. may interpret the situation in such a way as to seek a comfort for itself,” the official Korean Central News Agency quoted her as saying. “The expectation, which they chose to harbor the wrong way, would plunge them into a greater disappointment.”
This stalemate doesn’t seem any closer to a resolution than it was when Joe Biden took office, but that’s really not something I would criticize the President over. Kim isn’t willing to budge on his demands that we lift some of the sanctions before he’ll even talk about dismantling his nuclear program. To his credit, Joe Biden is keeping with Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” approach and betting that we can wait Kim out until North Korea begins to seriously implode. In the meantime, we’re cooperating with South Korea and Japan and at least saying all of the right words.
Getting back to the status of the younger sister, we should keep in mind that it was only six months ago when she was denied a seat on the Politburo in what appeared to be a demotion. But since then, she’s slowly been emerging back into public view. In March, when renewed talks were first being discussed, it was Kim Yo Jong who was sent out to warn Joe Biden not to “cause a stink” in any meetings between North and South Korea. Later that month, after North Korea resumed missile tests, she showed up on state media supervising the launches alongside her brother.
Handling his sister and her place in the hierarchy has always been something of a balancing act for Kim Jong-un. He obviously likes to keep all of the power in the country centered in his family and the sister clearly is a person with ambitions. But a number of the traditional warlords around North Korea are very patriarchal and deride the notion of a woman ever leading the country. There have been more rumors regarding Kim Jong-un’s health this month after some recent photos showed that he seems to have lost a significant amount of weight.
It’s not that he couldn’t benefit from dropping a few pounds, so if he’s simply been on a diet there may not be anything to this story. But plenty of analysts suspect that there’s something else going on. If his health is really declining and he doesn’t have that long to live, he’s got to be keeping an eye on the question of who would succeed him. His own children are far too young at this point, so his sister might be the logical choice, assuming he can get the rest of the leaders in his country to accept her.
But if Kim were to pass away with no clear picture of who would take power it could throw the entire country into serious turmoil. A power struggle that destabilizes a country with access to nuclear weapons is far from an ideal situation, and it’s unlikely that any new leader would take North Korea in a more democratic and cooperative direction. But I suppose we should be satisfied for now with any resolution that doesn’t include mushroom clouds rising over the peninsula.
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