By Robert R. King
In a tough statement, Kim Yo-jong, the sister of Kim Jong-un, issued a particularly vicious attack on North Korean defectors, particularly those who send leaflets across the border from the South. She referred to the refugees in the South as “human scum, hardly worth their value as human beings” and “human scum, little short of wild animals who betrayed their own homeland, are engrossed in such unbecoming acts to imitate men. They are sure to be called mongrel dogs as they bark in where they should not.” [The quoted text is from the official English translation of the statement; the Republic of Korea is always referred to as “south Korea” without a capital “S”.]
The statement also includes a threat: “Now that the mongrel dogs are doing others harm, it is time to bring their owners to account. I would like to ask the south Korean authorities if they are ready to take care of the consequences of evil conduct done by the ruggish-like mongrel dogs who took no scrupple to slander us while faulting the ‘nuclear issue’ in the meanest way at the most untimely time.”
The repetition of vicious phrases such as “human scum” and “mongrel dogs” seems to go beyond the usual vituperation and venom that is reserved by the North for defectors who have illegally fled the paradise that is North Korea in order to live in the South.
Why has one of the most senior North Korean officials, the sister of the Supreme Leader, issued such a blistering denunciation of refugees from the North now in the South?
Are Leaflets Really Having an Impact in North Korea?
The statement begins with reference to sending “hundreds of thousands of anti-DPRK leaflets into the areas of our side from the frontline area.” Sending leaflets across the DMZ via balloons or other means of physically delivering the papers has been done for decades. In recent years this has been a publicized effort of some human rights and defector organizations in the South for publicity and fund-raising. The effort is visible and photo-worthy. It irritates officials in the North, and the media blasts from the North are used by human rights groups in the South as evidence of their effectiveness. (See, for example, the North Korean threats against the South in 2016 when tens of thousands of leaflets were sent across the border by balloon.)
Leaflets sent by balloon, however, have limited impact. They usually land not far from the DMZ border and seldom if ever reach Pyongyang, and soldiers are ordered to pick up and destroy such propaganda materials. Far more significant information is reaching North Korea via radio—government-sponsored and religious broadcasts from South Korea, U.S. radio from Voice of America and Radio Free Asia in Korean, and Korean-language broadcasts from Chinese border areas intended for the Korean population in Northeast China, but with a significant listenership in North Korea. In Cold War Europe in the 1950s, the United States conducted major sophisticated balloon drops of leaflets directed toward Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Poland, and other countries in Central Europe, but such efforts were abandoned in 1956 in large part because they were less effective than radio in reaching these areas.
Uncertainty in the North and Defector Influence in the South
Another factor that may have motivated Kim Yo-jong to release her broadside against North Korean defectors in South Korea is because there is growing uncertainty in the North. Kim Jong-un was missing from the public eye for three weeks before he made a public appearance for the grand opening of a fertilizer factory, then he was out of sight again for a notable period of time. The Supreme Leader smokes too much, is overweight, and he had health problems—not a healthy prognosis for someone in his 30s. The recent promotion of the Supreme Leader’s sister Kim Yo-jong to alternate membership in the Politburo and her recent prominence in making important public statements, such as this recent blast against defector leaflets, may be a further indication of uncertainty about the future.
Another factor that may be raising concerns in the North is what appears to be the growing influence of defectors in South Korea. In elections six weeks ago, two prominent defectors were elected to the National Assembly. Although both are members of the minority party in the Assembly, it shows the growing credibility, acceptability, and influence of defectors in the South. Defectors traditionally have taken the toughest position against the North in South Korea’s political discourse. In the past defectors have been on the margins of South Korean society, but now two prominent defectors sit in the National Assembly.
Pressing South Korea for Progress on Rapprochement
Another explanation for the “nastygram” from Kim Yo-jong is that Pyongyang is getting impatient with the slow progress by President Moon Jae-in for improving relations between the North and South. Moon just marked the third full year of his five-year term in office, and under the South Korean constitution, a president can serve only a single term. Time is running out to redefine the relationship with the North under Moon Jae-in. Furthermore, Moon’s Democratic Party just won some 60 percent of the seats in the National Assembly. If he wants to make progress with the North, he now has the votes in the Assembly to get it done. Mme. Kim’s blast may be intended to encourage President Moon to move more quickly.
The threats in the tough message from Pyongyang target initiatives that President Moon supports in the search for better relations with the North. Kim Yo-Jong referenced the upcoming 20th anniversary of the June 15, 2000 summit between leaders of the North and South, and their declaration marking the beginning of Kim Dae-jung’s “Sunshine” Policy which led to improved relations, divided family visits, and economic cooperation.
Kim Yo-jong’s warning to the South Korean president followed another blast of vicious invective: “The south Korean authorities must be aware of the articles of the Panmunjom Declaration and the agreement in the military field in which both sides agreed to ban all hostile acts including leaflet-scattering in areas along the Military Demarcation Line. . . . It is hard to understand how such sordid and wicked act of hostility is tolerated in the south at a time as now.”
Mme. Kim then spelled out the threats: “south Korean authorities will be forced to pay a dear price if they let this situation go on while making sort of excuses.” If Seoul does not take steps Pyongyang is demanding “they had better get themselves ready for possibility of the complete withdrawal of the already desolate Kaesong Industrial Park following the stop to tour of Mt. Kumgang, or shutdown of the north-south joint liaison office whose existence only adds to trouble, or the scrapping of the north-south agreement in military field which is hardly of any value.”
Considering the modest impact of the leaflet balloons and the vicious voice in which they are attacked, it seems quite clear that the North is simply trying to move Seoul into making important concessions now. Political uncertainty, the possible strain on the North Korean economy from United Nations sanctions, and the worldwide Covid-19 economic downturn are likely the most important factors behind the vehemence of the statement, which indicates its urgency.
Denouncing U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo and Defending China
Another interesting and probably related media missive was a statement released by the International Department of the Central Committee of the Workers Party of Korea. The statement said that Secretary of State Pompeo “reeled off rubbish” that the U.S. would work with its partners in the West to ensure that “liberal democracy” rules in this century. It continued to note that Pompeo “said nonsense about China over the issues of Hong Kong, Taiwan, human rights and trade disputes,” and “he slandered the leadership of the Communist Party of China over socialism.” The statement then included another malicious comment about the Secretary of State: “Pompeo, who has been deeply engrossed in espionage and plot-breeding against other countries, has become too ignorant to discern where the sun rises and where it sets.”
The last phrase is probably the key to the blast at Pompeo. North Korea clearly has cast its lot with China and wants to make sure that Beijing will have no doubt that Pyongyang sees its future with its socialist neighbor China as relations deteriorate between the U.S. and China.
Increasingly dependent on China as its economy worsens, thanks to UN sanctions and now the Covid-19 economic downturn, North Korea appears to be increasingly concerned about its future. The blast at South Korea and the tightening embrace of China appear to show a North Korea increasingly fearful about the future in a very difficult time.
South Korea’s Immediate Response Risks Emboldening the North
In less than 24 hours after Mme. Kim Yo-jong issued her demeaning and intemperate screed against the flier balloons, the South Korean government responded that it would take immediate action to prohibit the sending of fliers via balloon because they caused “tension” with the North. Mayors of some of the towns along the border reportedly called for strong government action to halt the balloon launch. The spokesperson of the Ministry of Unification said “most leaflets have been found in our territory, causing environmental pollution and increasing burden on local people to get rid of them.”
Defectors and human rights activists were equally adamant that they would not stop their launch activities. One rights group said it had no plans to stop sending fliers across the border, and in fact had ordered another one million leaflets. Advocates were quick to denounce the restrictions as a violation of the right of freedom of speech, and others denounced buckling under Pyongyang’s demands.
The real risk of for the Moon Jae-in government is that by responding so quickly and so publicly to the demeaning dressing down from Mme. Kim Yo-jong gives the administration the appearance of being overly eager to accede to Pyongyang’s demands. It looks particularly obsequious to respond so quickly and so totally to such an arrogant ultimatum from the North.
Such a response only weakens Seoul’s ability to negotiate with the North. The quick and total capitulation by the South will only encourage Pyongyang to take a tougher position in any negotiations that may come up in the future. There was not even a hint that the South might drive a bargain with the North to get something in return for ending the sending of fliers.
I am personally skeptical of the value of balloons. Getting information into the North is better done with radio broadcasts and thumb drives than with fliers. How Seoul is responding, however, will have a major impact on future negotiations with the North. Unfortunately, the pattern does not bode well. The South Korean government’s immediate capitulation on balloons will only encourage the North to make unreasonable demands. The real danger is that Moon Jae-in administration will be so eager to show success in improving relations with the North in the final two years of its tenure in office that there will be an incentive to cave to demands from the North.
Robert R. King is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Korea Economic Institute of America. He is former U.S. Special Envoy for North Korea Human Rights. The views expressed here are his own.
Picture sources from Wikimedia commons