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In North Korea, the Fourth Man Could Be a Woman

By Barbara Demick

New Yorker

Kim Jong Un and Kim Yo Jong at a table
Amid reports of Kim Jong Un’s failing health, it appears that the most obvious successor to rule the country, despite its sexist political system, is his sister, Kim Yo Jong. Photograph from Bloomberg / Getty

The conventional wisdom is that a woman could never ascend to the leadership of North Korea, a country stuck in a time warp of passé fashions, hairdos, music, and social mores. A toxic mix of Confucianism and totalitarianism indentures women to their husbands, to their in-laws, and, ultimately, to a male-dominated regime. With a few exceptions (the best known being the vice foreign minister, Choe Son Hui), North Korea’s senior cadres are almost entirely male. The Supreme People’s Assembly—which currently has six hundred and eighty-seven members—is supposed to set aside twenty per cent of its seats for women, but the percentage has frequently dipped lower. And the primary function of these token deputies seems to be to brighten the optics, by wearing the jewel-toned, floor-length Korean gowns best known by the South Korean term hanbok. Since 1948, North Korea has been ruled by three men—the founder, his son, and his grandson—but, nevertheless, it is now conceivable that the fourth man will be a woman. That is because, with reports that Kim Jong Un is in failing health, the most obvious successor is his thirtysomething sister, Kim Yo Jong.

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