Burying Our Heads in the Sand: Female Participation in Political Violence (The Kim Yo-jong Story)

By: Annie Kowalewski, Columnist

Photo by: Associated Press

After Kim Yo-jong’s appearance at the Pyeongchang Olympic Games Opening Ceremony, the media heralded her “charm” and applauded her for “stealing the show”. [i] Kim Yo-jong’s coverage was so positive that even Buzzfeed News stepped in to remind the populace that she is part of one of the most cruel and repressive regimes in modern history. [ii] Yet this phenomenon runs deeper than a naïve storyline about a mysterious public figure that suddenly captured the interest of reporters and journalists. The media coverage of Kim Yo-jong reveals a bias that’s common when describing female participation in atrocities and political violence: that of the woman as a docile, harmless figure shaped by her circumstances rather than an autonomous entity that willingly chooses to engage in violent conflict and human rights abuses.

In the past, North Korea has utilized the “army of beauties” and its most famous all female music group to disarm the international community and give the Kim regime a soft and “human” face. [iii] It was no doubt a deliberate move by the Kim regime to send the polished, well-spoken, and attractive Kim Yo-jong to such an international event. And, sadly, this form of North Korean propaganda continues to be successful. While Kim Yo-jong’s presence in Pyeongchang was historic and will, hopefully, bolster good faith between the North and the South, she still plays a crucial role in forming and implementing the brutal policies of the Kim regime and should be treated as such. Yet as Kim Yo-jong visited the South Korean presidential palace to deliver a handwritten note by her brother, the largest and most established Western media networks covered this event as they would a red-carpet stroll, discussing her sparkly top, how she wore her hair clipped back, and her freckles. [iv] There was little mention of her role in the Kim regime’s long list of human rights abuses, illicit financial networks, and destabilizing nuclear and missile programs.

The coverage of Kim Yo-jong reveals more about our sexist biases than North Korea’s successful soft power exports. Her coverage is reminiscent of a longstanding storyline of female jihadist terrorists who, according to the media, leave their comfortable homes and join jihadi fighters abroad because they’re lured by “jihotties” – attractive, eligible young men who are fighting for the Islamic State or other terrorist groups. [v] According to this narrative, women join because they’re promised a happy marriage and family, or want to raise kids in support of jihad. [vi] Yet interviews and studies reveal that, contrary to popular belief, women join terrorist movements for the same reasons that men do: a deep commitment to the ideological underpinnings of jihad terrorism, economic stability, and a willingness to engage in violence to achieve their goals. [vii] Is it so outlandish to believe that women can actually be attracted to the idea of building the caliphate through violence and spreading terror? Or that Kim Yo-jong enjoys the power she has through the oppressive regime? The portrayal of female jihadi fighters and Kim Yo-jong suggest that they have been tricked into situations where they must buy into political violence, rather than as autonomous beings who willingly choose to engage in such violence.

There are several reasons why this may be the case, from misleading evolutionary assumptions to the dismissal of females from our historical records on violent acts. Female leadership and involvement in political violence is not a recent phenomenon. [viii] For example, Jiang Qi, Mao Zedong’s third wife, took it upon herself to lead the youth revolution during the Cultural Revolution and played an important role in the trial and execution of her husband’s closest comrades. [viv] Or, within the Provisional IRA, females were largely responsible for planting bombs in Belfast and Derry. [x] Yet these women are largely ignored in our historical records and so the assumption that political violence is a largely male phenomenon lives on. Moreover, studies suggest that women are not inherently more peaceful, family-oriented, and risk-adverse than men, but merely express aggression through different, more socially-acceptable ways. That is, the hormonal and biological predispositions toward aggression and violence between men and women are not different, but men have had more opportunities to engage in violence because they are less stigmatized when they do so. [xi] This narrative – of women as inherently peaceful and non-violent – is harmful for our understanding of violent conflict and our own security.

Today, more women have the opportunity to engage in political violence and are choosing to do so. For example, female participation in jihadi terrorism continues to increase. [xii] In France alone, forty percent of French recruits who have joined ISIS in Syria are female and their role in building the caliphate should not be underestimated, dismissed, or absent from policy discussions surrounding the fight against terrorism. [xiii] Not only do these women provide logistics for the fighters, but are actively involved in weapons training and fighting on the front lines. [xiv] Similarly, Kim Yo-jong’s visit to South Korea demonstrates just how much Kim Jong Un trusts her leadership and her role in upholding the authoritarian North Korean regime. Despite the gaggle of media attention around her recently reported pregnancy and how she is the “Ivanka” of North Korea, Kim Yo-jong is the Vice-Director of the Propaganda and Agitation Department and an alternate member of the Politboro who actively supports and shapes the most repressive and violent regime in the world. [xx]

Thus, careful consideration of the women in these organizations is paramount to understanding the roots of terrorist insurgencies and the inner workings of the Kim regime. Ignoring the real reasons these women choose to join violent movements and dismissing womens’ leadership roles in these organizations greatly hinders our understanding of the widespread attraction to political violence. We have already seen this in our fight against terrorism, where women have been able to curtail certain policies and restrictions merely because they have been underestimated as threats. We should be wary of doing the same with Kim Yo-jong.



[i] Motoko Rich and Choe Sang-hun, “Kim Jong-un’s Sister Turns on the Charm, Taking Pence’s Spotlight,” The New York Times, February 11, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/02/11/world/asia/kim-yo-jong-mike-pence-olympics.html?mtrref=www.google.com&mtrref=www.nytimes.com&gwh=6A03B16D7848F7135CC9A1E96AD76E58&gwt=pay; Joe Sterling, Sheena McKenzie and Brian Todd, “Kim Jong Un’s sister is stealing the show at the Winter Olympics,” CNN News, February 10, 2018, https://www.cnn.com/2018/02/10/asia/kim-sister-olympics/index.html.

[ii] Julia Reinstein and David Mac, “PSA: Kim Jong Un’s Sister Is Not Your New Fave Shade Queen. She’s A Garbage Monster,” Buzzfeed News, February 10, 2018, https://www.buzzfeed.com/juliareinstein/kim-jong-un-sister-kim-yo-jong?utm_term=.kwQJXPNxe#.sfBl742MR.

[iii] Laura Bicker, “Kim Yo-jong and North Korea’s secret weapon,” BBC News, February 13, 2018, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-42984960.

[iv] “The Ivanka of North Korea. Meet Kim Yo-jong,” BBC News, February 8, 2018, http://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-asia-42985855/the-ivanka-of-north-korea-meet-kim-yo-jong

[v] Tania Kohut, “Extremist romance: How terrorists use ‘jihotties’ to lure lonely hearts online,” Global News, January 21, 2016, https://globalnews.ca/news/2469726/extremist-romance-how-terrorists-use-jihotties-to-lure-lonely-hearts-online/.

[vi] Catherine Zheng, “Women in ISIS: The Rise of Female Jihadists,” Harvard Political Review, March 18, 2017, http://harvardpolitics.com/world/women-isis-rise-female-jihadists/.

[vii] Camila-Catalina Fernandez, “Female jihadis are as ambitious as their male counterparts,” Vice, May 17, 2016, https://www.vice.com/sv/article/qb5jmv/meet-the-guy-who-interviews-swedish-is-women-123; Beverly Milton-Edwards and Sumaya Attia, “Female terrorists and their role in jihadi groups,” The Brookings Institution, May 9, 2017, https://www.brookings.edu/opinions/female-terrorists-and-their-role-in-jihadi-groups/; Katharina Von Knop, “The Female Jihadi: Al Qaeda’s Women,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism Vol 30(5):397-414.

[viii] Mia Bloom, “Women and Terrorism,” Political Psychology, January 2017, http://politics.oxfordre.com/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780190228637.001.0001/acrefore-9780190228637-e-124.

[viv] Ross Terrill, Madame Mao: The White Boned Demon, (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999).

[x] Jason Bennetto and Steve Crawshaw, “German court frees IRA bomber Maguire,” The Independent, June 28, 1995, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/german-court-frees-ira-bomber-maguire-1588839.html.

[xi] Kaj Bjorkqvist, “Gender differences in aggression,” Current Opinion in Psychology, Vol 19, 2008: 39-42.

[xii] Mia Bloom, “Women and Terrorism.”

[xiii] Audrey Alexander, Cruel Intentions: Female Jihadists in America, (Washington, DC: George Washington University Program on Extremism, 2016); Jack Moore, “Female jihadis give ISIS new avenue for attacks,” Newsweek, October 31, 2016, http://www.newsweek.com/2016/11/11/female-jihadis-isis-deadly-attacks-paris-france-syria-iraq-499247.html.

[xiv] Unaesah Rahman, “The role of women of the Islamic State in the dynamics of terrorism in Indonesia,” Missle East Institute, May 10, 2016, http://www.mei.edu/content/map/role-women-islamic-state-dynamics-terrorism-indonesia.

[xx] Justin McCurry, “Meet Kim Yo-jong, the sister who is the brains behind Kim Jon-un’s image,” The Guardian, October 9, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/oct/09/kim-yo-jong-sister-brains-behind-kim-jong-uns-image.

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