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The North Korean Femme Fatale Duo As a Ma-Kim-avellian Strategy: Beware!
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By April Xiaoyi Xu

Hollywood has long mesmerized eager moviegoers with femme fatales: mysterious women whose seductive charms ensnare men into dangerous situations.

Femme fatales are not merely fiction. At the center of current events is North Korea, a state that has used its own femme fatales to capture the world’s attention.

Earlier this year, Kim Jong-un’s younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, stole the show as head of the North Korean delegation in the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics.[1] Kim Yo Jong and North Korea’s grandiose arrival in the global arena seems to have marked a critical shift in the state’s mindset.

Nicknamed “the Ivanka Trump”[2] and “princess” of North Korea,[3] Kim Yo Jong has been a mysterious figure, much like Kim Jong-un’s wife Ri Sol Ju. Although both had appeared publicly before, there is extremely limited information on the two women closest to the Supreme Leader.[4]

Kim Yo Jong’s series of high-profile public appearances in PyeongChang naturally captivated the world. A sharp contrast to her brother’s militaristic style, the “youthful, photogenic” Yo Jong   wowed the crowd with her “flashing smiles,” “warm handshake,” and “pretty face.”[5] This, coupled with what we do know about her—that she plays a prominent role in North Korean domestic politics—has helped soften the country’s image.

The charm offensive[6] earned North Korea the informal honor of “winning the soft power Olympics” from many reputable foreign media sources.[7] It also served as a prelude to North Korea’s subsequent willingness to further engage with other states.

During recent meetings between Kim Jong-un and his counterparts from China and South Korea, Ri has attracted much international attention and further humanized Kim’s image.

Praised as “poised,” “a natural beauty,” “humble, well-mannered, graceful,” as well as “comfortable in the limelight,”[8] Ri has become a “fashion muse”[9] compared to celebrities ranging from pop stars to Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge.[10] According to some experts, Ri’s brightly-colored fashion choices—in sharp contrast to her husband’s signature black attire and her formerly darker-colored theme—are a tangible sign that North Korea is eschewing its long-established image.

Believing so, however, would not only be misguided, but also dangerous. Don’t let the North Korean femme fatale duo ensnare you with their charms!

Far from softening North Korea’s militaristic tendencies and flagrant human rights abuses parallel to the softening of the country’s image with his favorite women, Kim Jong-un is playing us. He is, at his core, a Machiavellian dictator: One who does not wish to change, but strategically lures in his enemies with the illusion of change.

More complex than a manual on using force to secure the leader’s power, The Prince emphasizes the balance a successful ruler must strike between “love and fear,” “liberality and meanness,” “clemency and cruelty,” and other opposing qualities. A central metaphor of Machiavelli’s influential work is the image of “the lion and the fox,” where Machiavelli urges the prince to not only be a cruel lion, but also an adaptable fox that alternates between qualities that earns love at times, and fear at others.[11]

In many ways, Kim’s strategy with his femme fatale duo is a textbook example of a successful execution of Machiavelli’s tips, with a creative twist on the gendered chapter of fortune/Fortuna. Where Machiavelli refers to fortune as an “impetuous river” akin to the goddess Fortuna, a seductive woman who tampers with young men’s ambitions, Kim uses the two women around him to distract his enemies.[12] Below the surface, his recent tactic of offering his sister and wife more agency on a global scale is in fact a continuation of his past Machiavellianism.

Having spent the first seven years of his dictatorship with a hardcore approach that has earned him international hatred and fear, Kim knew it was time to start generating some positive feelings—though maybe not as strong as love—from other states. This Machiavellian foreign policy parallels the uncanny image the three generations of Kims have each constructed domestically: A “Father Christmas”-like figure North Koreans learn to love and simultaneously fear, starting from early childhood.[13]

Ultimately, as much as Kim Yo Jong and Ri Sol Ju may mesmerize us, we, as global citizens, must not let these Machiavellian distractions successfully tempt us to look away from the unchanging core of North Korea: a rogue regime that continues to violate even the most basic human rights. Look past beauty, and confront the darker side.

For now, beware!

April Xiaoyi Xu is a graduating senior at Pomona College. She is a Phi Beta Kappa member initiated junior year, an incoming Downing Scholar at the University of Cambridge, and a Rhodes scholarship finalist.


[1] Todd, Brian. “Kim Jong Un's Sister Is Stealing the Show at the Winter Olympics.” CNN, Cable News Network, 10 Feb. 2018, www.cnn.com/2018/02/10/asia/kim-sister-olympics/index.html.

[2] Sang-hun, Choe. “Kim Jong-Un's Influential Sister to Visit South Korea for Olympic Ceremony.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 7 Feb. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/02/07/world/asia/kim-jong-un-sister-south-korea.html.

[3] Taylor, Kate. “North Korea's 'Princess' Kim Yo Jong Threw Pence Side-Eye, Cheered on a Joint Korean Hockey Team, and Pushed Propaganda in Her Whirlwind Trip to the Olympics.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 11 Feb. 2018, www.businessinsider.com/kim-yo-jong-olympic-trip-photos-2018-2.

[4] Kim, Christine. “From Cheerleader to Global Stage, North Korea's First Lady Joins Summit Dinner.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 27 Apr. 2018, www.reuters.com/article/us-northkorea-southkorea-summit-first-la/from-cheerleader-to-global-stage-north-koreas-first-lady-joins-summit-dinner-idUSKBN1HY1NL.

[5] Connor, Neil. “What Kim Jong-Un's Sister's Visit to the Winter Olympics Means for Korean Relations.” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group, 7 Feb. 2018, www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2018/02/07/kim-jong-uns-influential-sister-visit-south-korea-winter-olympics/.

[6] Jaeger, Max. “Kim Jong Un's Sister Seems to Have Charmed South Korea.” New York Post, New York Post, 12 Feb. 2018, nypost.com/2018/02/12/kim-jong-uns-sister-seems-to-have-charmed-south-korea/.

[7] Drezner, Daniel W. “Perspective | Is North Korea Really Winning the Soft Power Olympics?” The Washington Post, WP Company, 12 Feb. 2018. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/posteverything/wp/2018/02/12/is-north-korea-really-winning-the-soft-power-olympics/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.d5e8443d6c79.

[8] France-Presse, Agence. “'He's Not a Cartoon Character', South Koreans Smitten by Kim Jong-Un, Wife Ri Sol Ju.” Https://Www.hindustantimes.com/, 28 Apr. 2018, www.hindustantimes.com/world-news/he-s-not-a-cartoon-character-south-koreans-smitten-by-kim-jong-un-wife-ri-sol-ju/story-WbWZ86YRMMwJqYCs6ud3jK.html.

[9] Herald. “[2018 Inter-Korean Summit] Ri Sol-Ju Becomes 'Fashion Muse' for North Koreans.” The Korea Herald, 29 Apr. 2018, www.koreaherald.com/view.php?ud=20180429000134.

[10] Cooke, Phoebe. “How Kim Jong-Un's Wife Ri Sol-Ju Models Herself on Kate Middleton.” The Sun, The Sun, 30 Mar. 2018, www.thesun.co.uk/news/5933186/kim-jong-un-wife-ri-sol-ju-kate-middleton-outfits-lookalike/.

[11] Machiavelli, Niccolò. The Prince and the Discourses. Edited by Max Lerner. New York: Modern Library, 1950. Print. 57-59, 60-62, 63-85.

[12] Ibid. 91-94.

[13] Kang, Chor-hwan, and Pierre Rigoulot. The Aquariums of Pyongyang. Atlantic Books Ltd, 2012. Print. 1-2.

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