The Sister: The Extraordinary Story of Kim Yo Jong, the Most Powerful Woman in North Korea by Sung-Yoon Lee - review by Hazel Smith

Hazel Smith

Mona Lisa of Pyongyang

The Sister: The Extraordinary Story of Kim Yo Jong, the Most Powerful Woman in North Korea


Macmillan 290pp £20 order from our bookshop

The title of this book might lead readers to expect a biographical study of Kim Yo Jong, the 36-year-old sister of Kim Jong Un, North Korea’s leader. The book in fact offers only the barest of biographical detail, however. In the opening chapter, Sung-Yoon Lee states that the focus of his work will be Kim Yo Jong’s political career, but that subject forms only part of the narrative. In some chapters, Kim is barely mentioned. The book also includes a history of the ruling Kim family, based on very well worn material, supplemented by the author’s opinions about Kim Jong Un. A motif throughout the book is provided by the author’s unremittingly disparaging comments about any effort made by South Korea to improve relations with North Korea.

The political career of Kim Yo Jong is well worth studying. North Korean and international TV footage shows her to be a constant presence at her brother’s side during major political events, both at home and abroad. Kim is clearly a highly trusted political confidante of North Korea’s leader. We don’t know much more than this, though, or where Kim fits more generally into the North Korean elite, with its family rivalries and competition (the Kim family is the lynchpin of this elite, but it is not the only powerful family in North Korea). We don’t even know, and the author doesn’t know either, if Kim is married and, if she is, to whom. This is important because intra-elite marriage has often been used in North Korea as a means of cementing and shaping political alliances. 

That this book provides scant information on its subject matter is not surprising. There is still today next to no available archival or authoritative secondary
material on the generation of North Korea’s ruling family to which Kim Yo Jong belongs, in English or in Korean. The Sister is based partly on

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

A Mirror - Westend

Follow Literary Review on Twitter