Kim Yo-Jong, sister to North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, resurfaced in public for the first time in two months on Friday, in a report on the Kims and several other high-level officials visiting flood-damaged areas outside of the nation’s capital.
Kim Yo-jong featured prominently in a suddenly escalating and abruptly concluding drama this summer in which Pyongyang ordered the bombing of a “joint liaison office” in Kaesong, North Korea, used for daily contact with the South. The two countries established the office during talks between Kim Jong-un and leftist South Korean President Moon Jae-in in 2018.
The younger Kim sibling penned articles in state media condemning Seoul for the common practice by human rights activists on the southern side of the border of sending propaganda leaflets and food aid to starving and repressed North Koreans, threatening war in the event that Seoul did not act against the activists. Moon’s administration did scold, and attempt to legally silence, South Korean human rights activists, which did not stop the office bombing but resulted in Kim Jong-un suddenly calling off alleged military attack plans scheduled to take effect after the bombing.
In the months following that conflict, observers believe that North Korea has been struggling to keep the Chinese coronavirus in control within its borders, though it claims to have officially diagnosed zero cases, and to rebuild devastated villages and critical farmlands following heavy floods that also affected neighboring China. Much of North Korean state media’s attention in the past two months has been on Kim Jong-un’s alleged efforts to lead rebuilding of damaged areas and on the construction of a new hospital in Pyongyang. The capital’s state media has described the hospital as pivotal and necessary while denying the existence of any community spread of coronavirus.
On Friday, the state newspaper Rodong Sinmun published photos of Kim Jong-un in Kimhwa County, on the border with South Korea. Kim Yo-jong appeared in the background of some photos, apparently the only woman among the seven high-level officials, not including her brother, at the public appearance.
While Kim Yo-jong’s presence was most significant in the context of her absence from the public eye recently, Kim Jong-un’s remarks were notable for their criticism of his regime’s response to the flooding. While his words were mostly positive, he appeared to lament that the newly constructed housing for flood victims was ugly.
“The soldier builders who turned out in the campaign for recovering from damage by natural disaster … made patriotic dedication [sic] and worked the miracle of bringing about the brilliant creation in the era of the Workers’ Party in the area swept by natural disasters in a short period spanning 40 odd days,” Rodong Sinmun reported, paraphrasing Kim Jong-un.
“Vividly recalling the day in the mid-August when a helicopter was used to learn about the situation of the disaster after over 900 mm disastrous downpour cut off even the roads and when he was shocked to hear the horrifying report that more than 1 000 dwelling houses were destroyed, he said that they all seem to have happened just yesterday,” the newspaper said of Kim.
Kim reportedly applauded the North Korean “people’s army” for “world-startling achievements under the energetic leadership and meticulous guidance of our Party.”
“He continued to say that the noble mental and moral traits of the People’s Army by which it displays indefatigable mental power with firm resolution to go through thick and thin without any slightest vacillation and hesitation despite whatever disasters and hardships,” Rodong Sinmun relayed, “if they are for the sake of our Party, the people and the prosperity of the country, and creates a thing out of nothing and turns a misfortune into a blessing are the key secret to the creation of all miracles on this land.”
The state propaganda outlet later drops Kim’s displeasure at how unsightly the constructions were to him.
“One thing he felt regretful while watching the houses built in the areas that had been hit by disasters, he said, is that designs of all the houses were monotonous,” Rodong Sinmun reported. “He noted that he wishes they had been given peculiarity on the principle of meeting the advantageous cultural and regional characteristics of the areas and meeting the people’s conveniences and demand, and artistic harmony with the surrounding environment and diversity had been appropriately combined.”
Reuters recalled in reporting on Kim’s latest remarks that state media outlets had previously applauded the new architecture as delivering a “socialist fairyland” to residents.
Kim lamented 2020 as a year full of “unprecedented hardships.”
General Robert B. Abrams, commander of U.S. Forces Korea (USFK), described North Korea in an interview last month as nearly singularly focused on flood reconstruction and fighting the virus, resulting in a relatively calm atmosphere at the North/South border, the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).
“Compared to previous years, the reduction in tension is palpable, it’s identifiable, and you can see it,” Abrams said in an interview with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). “The regime right now, and the military, is focused principally on getting their country recovered and helping mitigate the risk of COVID-19 [Chinese coronavirus].”