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  2. An Investigation of Kim Yo-Jong’s Retaliatory Behavior Against South Korea : Why Is North Korea Acting This Way?

An Investigation of Kim Yo-Jong’s Retaliatory Behavior Against South Korea : Why Is North Korea Acting This Way?

Han Ki-Bum(chair research fellow, North Korea Research Institute)

Earlier in June, the First Vice Director of North Korea, Kim Yo-Jong, publicly condemned North Korean defectors’ sending of anti-North Korea leaflets across the border. Following this, Kim continued to make statements for 10 days through the United Front Department and the General Staff Department (GSD), which accordingly increased the threats of retaliatory behavior. 


Such threats against South Korea have progressed through 4 different stages. (Stage 1) On June 4th, Kim increased the level of hostility against the South through citizen gatherings, (Stage 2) ordered the blockage of all communication lines from the South on the 9th, and a threat on June 13 to destroy the liaison office (Stage 3)  the destruction of the liaison office on June 16th, and (Stage 4) finally threatened the Gaeseong Industrial Complex and Mount Gemgang areas if the mass distribution of anti-North leaflets continued A more thorough examination of such processes is touched upon below.


The entire process started on June 4th, when Kim Yo-Jong described the defectors as “trash” or “dogs”, and warned that they would pay the price for sending leaflets across the border. The next day, the GSD announced their implementation of the first step in Kim’s orders, by disconnecting the communication lines between South and North Korea. On June 8th, North Korea Chairman of the Workers Party of Korea Kim Jong Un s and Kim Yo-Jong participated in an operation meeting to change the status of South Korea into that of an enemy, while at the same time ordering all communication lines to be blocked. By noon of June 9th, there were no remaining methods of communication between the two countries.


Unlike North Korea’s past decisions to only allow for such political decisions to be displayed on foreign mass media channels, this time they decided to publish the news on local newspapers for their citizens. Starting on June 5th , with workforce organizations gathering at hospital construction sites and led by senior members of the North Korean political establishment, the protests spread all over the country. Phrases like “let’s destroy all the trash” or “we express our hatred towards the South Korean trash” were used to increase the level of hostility.


The South Korean government and the Ministry of Unification swiftly responded to such protests with firm action, but North Korea’s aggressive behavior did not stop. On June 12th, the Head of the United Front Department indicated that the Blue house “often speaks exaggeratedly but brings nothing to action”, and warned of more threats coming in the near future. The next day on June 13th, the Director of the Foreign Office also stated that our Foreign Relations Department is “continuing to talk nonsense about the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” and that it is no longer a topic that should be discussed.


On the same day, Kim Yo-Jong again announced that “it seems to be time for [the North] to cut all relations with the South” and that she would “soon present further steps that are to be taken.” Furthermore, she claimed that “the people will soon see the Korean communication office be broken down into the grounds without a shape” and that the next actions would be carried out under the leadership of the Army’s General Staff Department. On her cue, the Gaesung Communication Office was destroyed 4 days later, on June 16th. North Korean officials also stated that they would soon announce further decisions and action plans for the army’s relocation to the Gaeseong Industrial Complex and Mount Gemgang areas.


Following the very first announcement by Kim Yo-Jong, North Korea’s threats against the South showed the following characteristics. First, the threats are initiated from the very top of the North Korean political hierarchy and followed by those below, creating a top-down process. Second, the level of threats is more escalatory compared to last year’s verbal announcements due to their rapid implementation as aggressive actions. Third, even though the South Korean government showed reconciliatory gestures to the North’s demands, Pyongyang continued to increase the level of threats. Finally, the citizens of North Korea are receiving all this news through local mass media, leading to a high level of hostility.


First, the legacy of the Kim family has started the engines of threats against South Korea. Kim Jong-Un pushed Kim Yo-Jong, who was the main leader for creating peaceful atmospheres between the two countries in the spring of 2018, to become the driving force behind such provocations in the summer of 2020. The current trend  of North Korean threats are not intended to communicate Pyongyang’s dissatisfaction towards the South Korean government, but is instead part of a strategy of stoking antagonism between the two countries.


Since November 2019, North Korea has announced a series of 20 different threats against the United States. Kim Jong-Un had requested a new method of year-end calculations to the U.S. since April of the same year, but as there was no response, North Korea’s higher officials started to send out threats and pleas to speed up the situation. However, the current threats are not coming from Kim Jong Un, but from Kim Yo-Jong instead.


Secondly, North Korea’s threats did not end with their usual speeches and harsh statements, but were turned into actions. This process happened very quickly as the communication lines were cut off and the liaison office was destroyed. The North Korean offices in the Gaeseong Industrial Complex and Mount areas were removed, and troops surrounded those areas. There were several clashes in the NLL and DMZ areas, and it seems to be that stronger actions against the defectors may be taken.


Third, North Korea increased the number of retaliatory actions during this period. Ignoring the South Korean government’s attempts at reconciliation, Pyongyang escalated the level of hostility. Kim Yo-Jong even warned the government “not to mistaken these actions as simple threats.” This lack of consideration for peaceful agreements reflects the purpose behind the North’s latest provocations. Stating that the South Korean government “only speaks of big things and never takes things to actions” and that “denuclearization is a nonsense talk,” Kim Yo-Jong expressed her hostility towards the American cooperation.


Fourth, North Korea is using those threats against South Korea as a way of gaining their North Korean citizenry’s animosity to the South. By sharing with their citizens their political actions for the first time, they are developing a sense of hatred and betrayal against the defectors. This adds to the prolonged restrictions and the COVID-19 pandemic that combines together to result in severe economic hardship.


Therefore, the recent threats were not a way of persuading South Korea to accept more deals, but instead to force the South to choose a definite side as the compromises with the United States are to be made very soon. Furthermore, Kim Jong-Un’s government may be using this as a way of reinforcing power, once again, within the country as well as promoting anti-America sentiment.


<Chart> June 2020, North Korea’s Threats of Retaliatory Actions Published on Local Newspapers



June 4th


Kim Yo-Jong Discourse


Citizen’s Newspaper

- Title: “Don’t Ask For Your Own Anger” –

·         Criticizing the defectors’ leaflets: Called the defectors names like “trash” and “dog,” belittling them as using “stupid leaflets to touch upon the massive denuclearization issue”

·         Criticizing the South Korean Government for not being able to control those defectors, and threatening North Korean retaliation

·         Mentioned that “the ones promoting and allowing for these actions are even more hateful,” and that she should have “made laws against these trash.” Threated that if left as is, the communication lines and liaison offices will be blocked as a price. 

June 5th


Office of Unification Spokesman Discourse


Citizen’s Newspaper

- Title: “An enemy is of course an enemy”

·         Retitled Kim Yo-Jong’s discourse as that of the Vice Chair of South Korean Relations

·         Threatened that the first of the consequences would start with the blockage of the liaison office, therefore making South Korea suffer

June 6th


Rallies and Hostility


Citizen’s Newspaper

·         The labor workers at the construction site of Pyeongyang General Hospital and College students started a rally against the defectors

·         Chairman Kim Jong Un and several high-ranking officials stated that they “hate the South Korean trash”

June 9th


Central News Agency Publications


Citizen’s Newspaper

- “About the blocked communication lines between North and South Korea”

·         “Divisions agreed to rename South Korean relations office to that of an enemy on the 8th,” and “there will be absolutely no communication between the two countries”

·         “Starting at noon of June 9th, all plans have been taken into action and there are no longer any possible ways of communication”

June 12th


Head of Unification Department Discourse

- “The relations between the two countries are now irreversible”-

·         The Blue House already mentioned strict restrictions against the leaflets, but the North replied that they have more doubts than beliefs

·         "Don’t want to deal with people who say a lot of things but never take any steps towards making them happen; South Korea will regret and suffer”


June 13th


Department of Foreign Relations U.S. Head Discourse


·         On the 12th the Diplomatic Services announced that “there is no longer a position South Korea can take between the United States and North America; we should stop talking about denuclearization issues as it is impossible and a complete nonsense”

·         "We have changed a lot compared to the past 2 years, and we will continue to change

June 13th


Kim Yo-Jong Discourse

- “We will soon take further steps-

·         “It is time for us to cut connections with the South. We are going to be taking further actions soon. With the power that I have been passed on, I will order future actions and the liaison office will not be recognizable in shape in a few days” à destruction of liaison office

·         "I am going to be passing on the decisions for the next couple actions to the GSD”

June 16th


GSD Public Discourse


Citizen’s Newspaper

·         North Korean troops will once again take over places that had been previously agreed upon as peaceful locations, and the office is currently collecting opinions on how to implement this action 

·         Also will collect opinions in opening up more areas near the Seonam seas and the land wires to support attacking distribution of leaflets 

·         o To implement those ideas and opinions as soon as possible, the GSD will propose plans to the Armed Services Committee for approval