If Kim Yo-jung’s rumoured rule of North Korea comes to pass, the world will gain a powerful voice with a clear historical parallel.

 

 

Much of the speculation surrounding the possible demise of North Koreas current leader Kim Jong-un is centred around who would succeed him. The person in the frame is his elusive thirty-two-year-old sister, Kim Yo-jong, first brought to prominent international media attention during the 2018 North Korea–United States Singapore Summit.

Despite her close relationship with her brother, many dont believe that the North Korean culture of Confucian patriarchy will ever allow a woman to adopt the leader’s mantle. But North Korea is also a country of extreme repression and staged wellbeing, where notions of gendered collectivism work in solidarity for the state. So a female leader might just fit the bill for a modern autocracy in the 21st century.

Kim Yo-jong was recently promoted to leader of the appellate body in charge of ideological indoctrination, party organisation and political appointments, putting her, arguably, one step away from total state control and power.

Who better, then, to compare Kim to than Elizabeth I of England, the accidental queen of a fragile dynasty, who artfully used the propaganda of infallibility to cement her rule at home and to keep more powerful, external enemies at bay.

The Rainbow and Armada portraits depicting Elizabeth I and the portraits, busts and statues of North Korean leaders since Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il-sung, all use the same Tudor theatricality of the idealised persona as the object of devotion and veneration. Full of symbolism, these images are designed to communicate with their popular audience, that despite five hundred years of separation, still shares living conditions of subsistence survival.

 

 

Early on in her reign, Elizabeth I adopted the cultural identity of “Pax Gloriana;” the role of keeper of the Protestant faith, defender of public order and divinely elected monarch, ruling overall. Leveraging this status, Elizabeth skilfully out-manoeuvred internal conspiracies and competing relatives. 

Kim might go a long way towards adopting a similar persona embracing the family doctrine of “Juche” (self-reliance), to amplify North Korea’s otherwise limited levers of power.

Imagine, then, future depictions of Supreme Leader Kim Yo-jong. Like Elizabeth, she rests her hand on a globe of distorted geography, with a swollen Korean Peninsula stretching over the widest part of the sphere, and China visible, but tiny.

With the other hand, she points to a rainbow, a symbol of her role, like Elizabeth, as serene ruler over her nation, and a reminder also of her eternal heritage; her grandfather’s birth at the foot of Korea’s holy Mount Baekdu ushered by the appearance of a double rainbow, and the sacredness of her father, Kim Il-sung, an officially proclaimed deity in North Korean party folklore.

However, next to Kim, the usual olive branch that is part of Elizabeth’s identity as both victor and peacemaker, lies broken.

Earlier this year Kim personally oversaw the destruction of the inter-Korean liaison office in Kaesong, used for dialogue between the two Koreas, in retaliation for, in her words, the “human scum” of North Korean defectors who spread leaflets across the border.

Both royal commanders are pictured wearing pearls, denoting their quasi-religious virginal state, and, thereby, consigning their largely mysterious personal life – their one supposed son, their actual age – to the cult of untouchability. It also serves as the talisman of protection from their scheming political rivals. 

Among todays slick Russian and Chinese propaganda machines, Kim as Pax Gloriana would serve to debunk myths” about North Korea, like mass starvation and an unrelentingly dire human rights record. In this guise, she could even fool the world into hope for progress on denuclearisation; being a woman, who unlike her brother, has the ability to smile and connect in unison with other dignitaries at public events, reflects her psychological competence. 

 

Among todays slick Russian and Chinese propaganda machines, Kim as Pax Gloriana would serve to debunk myths” about North Korea, like mass starvation and an unrelentingly dire human rights record. In this guise, she could even fool the world into hope for progress on denuclearisation; being a woman, who unlike her brother, has the ability to smile and connect in unison with other dignitaries at public events, reflects her psychological competence. 

 

At a time of amorphous threats from a global pandemic, in which a mix of discipline, courage, and fact-based, consensus-building political leadership has been especially well-executed by women – from Finland to Taiwan – North Korea could do worse than promote a woman to its highest rank. 

But women can be despots too; the hard-boned stares of these two supreme leaders, in contrast to their fleshy forbears, points to their readiness to rule over peasants, labourers, merchants and military leaders with ruthless decisiveness. 

Kim could prove as capable and cruel as her dynastic predecessors in the ways she neutralises her competitors. But one has to hope that, as a woman, she understands that North Koreans might want less “jouche” and more of a better life – to travel and have access to education and healthcare, and, outside of the capital Pyongyang, food.

The images to date of Kim Yo-jong, just like those of Elizabeth I, are aloof and offer no emotional penetration; Kim lacks the pomp of Elizabeths costumed carapace with naval vessels in the background. But behind her communist grey suit lies an arsenal of ballistic missiles. While not a sign of imperial, expansionist ambition, they underscore the determination of a vulnerable regime in desperate search of international security and respect.  

Lets hope that, if Kim becomes North Koreas first-ever female leader, she leverages her countrys potential and abandons the eternal nihilism of her recent ancestors. 

 

 

 

 

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