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The North Korean Femme Fatale Duo as a Ma-Kim-avellian Strategy

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

Femme fatales are not merely fiction, however. At the centre of current events is a rogue player that singularly and stubbornly defies international norms: North Korea, a state that has used its own femme fatales to capture the world’s attention. Employing his wife and sister to soften North Korea’s image, Kim Jong-Un strategically distracts the international community from more important issues such as the country’s ongoing egregious human rights violations.

From academia to mainstream media, we have long grown accustomed to thinking about North Korean leaders as irrational and impulsive. More recently, more have argued that Kim Jong-Un and his predecessors, far from being crazy, are in fact calculating Machiavellians. They believe that much like Renaissance political theorist Niccolò Machiavelli’s notorious prince, the Kims have actually been quite rational all along. Despite the stark difference between the two perspectives, the democratic world’s near-morbid fascination with the rogue nation has always centred the brutality of Kim’s regime and its longstanding vows to seclude itself from the rest of the world.

That is, until earlier this year, when Kim Jong-Un’s younger sister Kim Yo-Jong “stole the show” under international limelights as head of the North Korean delegation in the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics. The female Kim and the North Korea she represents’ grandiose arrival in the global arena seems to have marked a critical shift in North Korea’s mindset—a radical departure from our previous image of Kim’s merciless, isolationist regime.

Nicknamed “the Ivanka Trump” and the “princess” of North Korea, Kim Yo-Jong has been a mysterious figure, much like Kim’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.

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” female Kim wowed the crowd with her “flashing smiles,” “warm handshake,” and “pretty face.” This, coupled with what we do know about her—that she has been playing a prominent role in North Korean domestic politics—has helped soften the country’s image for Kim Jong-Un.

“[It] is a signal that North Korea is not this crazy, weird former Cold War state, but it too has young women that are capable and are the future leadership,” North Korea expert Balbina Hwang told CNN.

The charm offensive earned North Korea the informal honour of “winning the soft power Olympics” from many foreign media sources. It also served as a prelude to North Korea’s subsequent willingness to further engage with other states through diplomatic channels over the months following Kim’s PyeongChang victories.

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

Praised as “poised,” “a natural beauty,” “humble, well-mannered, graceful” as well as “comfortable in the limelight,” Ri has become a “fashion musewho is compared to celebrities ranging from pop stars to Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge. Ri’s bright-coloured fashion choices, in sharp contrast with her husband’s signature black attires and her formerly darker-coloured theme, according to some experts, are a tangible sign that North Korea is eschewing its long-established image.

Believing so, however, would not only be misguided, but also dangerous. Do not 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 in a way that parallels the softening of the country’s image with his favourite women, Kim Jong-Un is playing us. He is, at the core, a Machiavellian dictator: one who does not wish to change but strategically lures his enemies with an illusion of change.

A brief return to Machiavelli’s The Prince will show us how Kim could have been taking advice directly from the famed teacher of evil. More complex than a manual on using force to secure the leader’s power, The Prince emphasises the balance a successful ruler must strike between “love and fear,” “liberality and meanness,” “clemency and cruelty,” among 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 who can alternate between qualities that would earn him love at times, and fear at others.

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 Machiavelli’s gendered chapter on fortune/Fortuna. Where Machiavelli refers to fortune as an “impetuous river” that he likens 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. His recent tactic of offering his sister and wife more agency on a global scale—on the surface—is in fact a continuation of his past Machiavellianism.

Having spent the first seven years of his dictatorship with a hard-core approach that has won him international hate mixed with secret fear, Kim knew that it was time to start earning 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.

Ultimately, as much as Kim Yo-Jong and Ri Sol-Ju may mesmerise us, we, as dutiful 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!