We can't fall for North Korea's soft power or be fooled by their femme fatale duo

By April Xiaoyi Xu, Pomona College

Kim Jong-un’s wife and his sister are part of an age-old ploy to make us think the hostile regime has changed. A clue: it hasn’t

By April Xiaoyi Xu, Pomona College |

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Is Kim Jong-un (right, back) using his sister Kim Yo-jong (front left) and his wife Ri Sol-ju to lull the rest of the world into a false sense of complacency about North Korea? It’s entirely possible.

Hollywood has long mesmerised film-goers with femme fatales: mysterious women whose seductive charms lure men into dangerous, and often fatal, situations. 

Femme fatales are not just fiction, though.

At the centre of current world events is North Korea – a rogue player that has consistently defied international norms, and has used its own femme fatales to capture the world’s attention. Kim Jong-un has often used his wife and sister to soften the state’s image, employing them to distract the international community from important issues like the country’s human rights violations. 

We have long grown used to thinking of North Korean leaders as irrational and impulsive. Recently, though, some have argued that Kim Jong-un and his predecessors are in fact calculating Machiavellians. They believe that, like political theorist Niccolò Machiavelli’s prince in his 16th-century political treatise The Prince, the Kims have been rational all along.

Despite the stark differences between the two perspectives, the democratic world’s fascination with South Korea’s neighbour has always centred on the brutality of Kim’s regime and its long-standing vows to seclude itself from the world. That is, until earlier this year, when Kim Jong-un’s younger sister Kim Yo-jong stepped into the international limelight as the head of the North Korean delegation in the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics. The female Kim’s arrival in the global arena seems to started a critical shift in North Korea’s image, one almost directly opposite to our previous image of a merciless, isolationist regime. 

Kim Yo-jong has long been a mysterious figure, much like Kim’s wife Ri Sol-ju. Both have appeared publicly before, but there is limited information to be found about the two women closest to the Supreme Leader. 

Kim Yo-jong’s series of high-profile public appearances in Pyeongchang captivated the world. The youthful-looking, photogenic Kim flashed smiles at cameras, shook hands with people, and presented a pretty face to the world. This, coupled with what we do know about her – that she plays a prominent role in North Korean domestic politics – has helped soften the country’s image somewhat. 

“[It] is a signal that North Korea is not this crazy, weird former cold war state, but it too has young women that are capable and are the future leadership,” North Korea expert Balbina Hwang commented in a CNN report. 

This charm offensive earned North Korea the informal honour of “winning the soft power Olympics”, as many foreign media outlets called the political power play behind the sporting event. It served as a prelude to North Korea’s subsequent willingness to further engage with other states through diplomatic channels. 

During recent meetings between Kim Jong-un and his counterparts from China and South Korea, his wife has also attracted much international attention. 

Praised as poised, well-mannered, and graceful (and seemingly comfortable in the media spotlight), Ri has become something of a fashion muse, and is compared to celebrities, pop stars, and foreign dignitaries like the Duchess of Cambridge, Catherine Middleton. Ri’s current sharp fashion choices, in contrast with her old sombre hues and her husband’s black attire are, according to some experts, a sign that North Korea is ready to eschew its long-established image of severity. 

Believing this, however, is misguided and dangerous. Don’t let this North Korean femme fatale duo trick you with their charms! 

Kim Jong-un is playing us. Don’t let the way his is softening the country’s image with his favourite women make you believe he is softening North Korea’s militaristic tendencies and flagrant human rights abuses the same way. He is, at his core, a Machiavellian dictator – one who doesn’t wish to change, but lures his enemies into a false sense of security with an illusion of change. 

A brief return to Machiavelli’s The Prince will show us why this is the case. The Prince states a successful ruler must strike a balance between (among other opposing qualities) love and fear, liberality and meanness, clemency and cruelty. One of the central metaphors of this work is the image of the lion and the fox. Basically, Machiavelli says a prince must not only be a cruel lion, but an adaptable fox. He must be able to alternate between the qualities that earn him love and the ones that earn him fear at any given time. 

Kim’s strategic use of his femme fatale duo on a global scale is a textbook example of the successful application of Machiavelli’s tips. In one of his chapters, Machiavelli talks about fortune as an “impetuous river” like the goddess Fortuna, a seductive woman who tampers with young men’s ambitions. Kim uses his sister and his wife in much the same way to distract his enemies.

Kim spent the first seven years of leadership using the hard approach used by his father before him to win him international hate and fear. He knew it was time for something different. Respect, if not love.

Ultimately, as mesmerising as Kim Yo-jong and Ri Sol-ju may be, we must not let them distract us from what North Korea really is – a rogue regime that continues to violate even the most basic human rights. We need to look beyond the superficial surface changes and realise that they’re still the same state they have always been.

Edited by Ginny Wong