Even among the autocracies of the world, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is sui generis. There is no other regime as cruel, as capricious or as wilfully boorish as the one presided over since 1948 by the Kim dynasty. Nominally socialist, the country resembles a quasi-feudal fief that effectively serves the interests of a single family, referred to throughout this book, with absolute seriousness, as “royals” by the American-based South Korean author Sung-Yoon Lee. So obscure and abrasive is the North Korean regime, its rhetoric so unhinged and its exactions so baroque, it gets reduced, rather dangerously, to a figure of cartoonish evil in many quarters in the West.
Lee, an experienced observer of North Korea, focuses here on a relatively recent figure in the dynasty, Kim Yo-jong, the younger sibling of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, who caused a media frenzy among the South Korean and Western media when she appeared as the country’s representative at the 2018 Winter Olympics across the 38th parallel in Pyeongchang. Reporters invested her with an unwarranted sense of glamour, no doubt because she was spirited and reasonably photogenic in comparison to her much-derided roly-poly brother.
This aesthetic disjuncture lured many into thinking Kim Yo-jong represented a change of tack from the North Korean regime. This hopefulness was reinforced by a series of ambitious head-to-heads with South Korean president Moon Jae-in and former US president Donald Trump (famously referred to as a dotard by North Korean propaganda and probably the easiest mark Pyongyang has encountered). As Lee persuasively lays out, Yo-jong’s rise has led to more of the same from the regime, as she oversaw the bolstering of Kim Jong-un’s cult of personality on a scale comparable to those of his father and grandfather.
Yo-jong’s evident ease, at times bordering on insolence, in her brother’s presence – even Kim family members are not normally exempt from the required displays of obsequiousness – convinces Lee that she will one day be the next leader of North Korea, potentially “fiercer and more ruthless” than her brother. Speculation over Kim Jong-un’s health also suggests this could happen sooner than expected – the regime appeared to tacitly admit last year that he nearly succumbed to Covid. As with North Korea, all this is conjecture, heavily based on precedent and on the not-always-disinterested testimony of defectors. But Lee’s contention seems right, that Pyongyang’s modus operandi – nuclear brinkmanship to get economic and diplomatic concessions followed by charm offences – remains unchanged.
The centre-left Moon Jae-in administration (2017–2022) was in particular given the runaround by Pyongyang. Moon and his government made more than a few questionable moves in its attempts to improve relations with Pyongyang, failing to get any reciprocal concessions. Most notable was the banning of balloon drops – the sending of anti-DPRK propaganda by defectors and activists across the border in balloons – in 2020. Even if the efficacy of the practice has long been questioned by some experts, it seemed like a particularly craven capitulation to the North Korean regime, which had in the preceding months demanded the balloon drops stop.
Much of Lee’s analysis is sound and his hawkishness on North Korea has often been proven right. But this doesn’t necessarily make for a great book. The Sister has a rather one-note air to it. There is not much in the way of nuance in its analysis of South Korea’s response to Pyongyang and on more than one occasion the book veers into tendentiousness. Lee says at one point that foreign readers may be unaware that Moon, in his memoir, remembers being thrilled as a young man at Kim Il-sung’s prediction that the United States would be defeated in Vietnam.
A similar gloss for foreign readers is not forthcoming regarding Moon’s predecessor Park Geun-hee, who is referred to as the subject of Pyongyang’s misogynistic invective but never as the daughter of assassinated former dictator Park Chung-hee, and who was herself impeached after mass protests and convicted of corruption. Nor is much context given regarding the successive military dictatorships that Moon and millions of other South Koreans chafed under for almost three decades. That this tyranny might have been mild compared to the north is neither here nor there.
A less aware reader might get the impression from this book that Moon Jae-in was a sleeper agent of Pyongyang rather than a well-meaning naif whose desire for rapprochement may have been motivated by the fact that, as with many South Koreans, his family originally comes from the pre-war north. Lee is entitled to write the book he chooses, one where South Korean politics and society are a mere backdrop to the geopolitical stand-off with the DPRK. But the scant context and nuance mean The Sister, for all its merits, is a rather undercooked polemic.