As the world awaits news on North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, conflicting reports have emerged about his poor health and whether or not he is alive. South Korea’s top foreign policy adviser, Moon Chung-in, released a statement supporting North Korea’s message that Kim Jong-un is “alive and well” and staying in the North Korean town of Wonsan, where he has a compound. According to satellite images, a train at a Wonsan station exclusively reserved for the compound’s use has been there since April 21. In the absence of information, speculation surrounding who may succeed him has begun. Given the dynastic nature of North Korean leadership, Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, is an obvious choice. Her family has controlled the country for seven decades, over three generations.
She is Kim Jong-un’s closest blood relative and has held the position of second in command as the deputy director of the Propaganda and Agitation Department of the Workers’ Party of Korea, the communist party that runs North Korea, since 2014. She was made an alternate member of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee in 2017. She is the second woman to ever hold that position, after her aunt Kim Kyong-hui. It is Kim Yo-jong’s job to make sure that her brother’s image as a strong leader is airtight and that the image of North Korea as an impenetrable nation is upheld.
No reliable photographs of Kim Jong-un have surfaced since April 11. Questions began to emerge after Kim Jong-un missed the commemoration of the 108th birthday of his grandfather, the man who founded North Korea’s communist regime, Kim Il-sung, on April 15. In North Korea, this is one of the most important days of the year, and Kim Jong-un was nowhere to be seen, which does not fit his track record. He has never missed this celebration since he assumed power from his father in 2011, the Associated Press reports.
Now, all eyes have turned to Kim Yo-jong. As the strategist behind her older brother’s carefully curated image both in North Korea and around the world, Kim Yo-jong is the next in line in the eyes of North Korea’s Workers’ Party, but societal tradition which does not allow women to run the country may prevent her from assuming that role.
Is Kim Yo-jong next in line to be the leader of North Korea?
Since the separate establishments of a communist regime in North Korea and a more westernized republic in South Korea in 1948, North Korea has been ruled by three men: the founder, Kim Il-sung; his son, Kim Jong-il; and now his grandson, Kim Jong-un. With reports of Kim Jong-un’s failing health, the most obvious successor would appear to be Kim Yo-jong. However, North Korea abides by Confucian ideals, which are traditionally hierarchical and male-dominated. When mixed with totalitarian ideologies, that makes for a society where women are always subservient to a male figure, be it their husbands or the overarching male-dominated regime.
Some experts believe that, because of this, it would make it nearly impossible for Kim Yo-jong to be considered. Others think that her rise to power is all but inevitable. “Among the North’s power elite, Kim Yo-jong has the highest chance to inherit power, and I think that possibility is more than 90%,” Cheong Seong-chang, an analyst at the private Sejong Institute in South Korea, told the Associated Press.
Others believe that it might come down to blood being thicker than water. “If something happens, Kim Yo-jong is the logical successor,’’ Sue Mi Terry, a former North Korea analyst for the CIA, told The New Yorker. “It is an open question whether North Korean elites would accept a woman, but they would have a more difficult time accepting somebody outside the Kim family.’’
Another theory is that, should Kim Jong-un need a successor in the immediate future, Kim Yo-jong will take on the role of regent until Kim Jong-un’s son, who is reportedly about 10 years old, can assume the role. This has historically been a more accepted role for women in North Korea and East Asia as a whole. Regents have temporarily governed as needed to transition the role to a young heir.
What is Kim Yo-jong's human rights record?
In 2017, the United States imposed sanctions on Kim Yo-jong for severe human rights violations and rigid censorship policies, putting her on a list among seven North Koreans and two entities of the North Korean regime to be blacklisted by the U.S. Treasury Department. The list prohibits U.S. citizens from conducting any form of interaction with those on the list. Specific offenses were not mentioned in the report published by the U.S. Department of the Treasury, but the acting director of the Office of Foreign Assets Control, John Smith, accused North Korea of concealing “its inhuman and oppressive behavior.” The report identifies North Korea’s Propaganda and Agitation Department, of which Kim Yo-jong is the deputy director, as the “primary agency responsible for both newspaper and broadcast censorship, among other things.”
What is Kim Yo-jong’s place in the Kim family dynasty?
Kim Yo-jong is the younger sister of Kim Jong-un. As the youngest and only daughter of former ruler Kim Jong-il and Ko Yong-hui, a Japanese-born dancer, Kim Yo-jong and Kim Jong-un share the same mother. Their father reportedly had seven children with four different women. Among their family, Kim Yo-jong and Kim Jong-un appear to have the closest relationship.
As early as 2002, when Kim Yo-jong would have been about 13, she showed an interest in politics and wanted a career in North Korea’s political system, reports the Washington Post. According to firsthand observations from reporters and former employees of Kim Jong-il, he regularly doted on his daughter and praised her intelligence. Kim Yo-jong is believed to have been groomed for a leadership position by her aunt Kim Kyong-hui, who occupied the same role Kim Yo-jong held during the rule of her own brother, Kim Jong-il.
Not much is known definitively about Kim Yo-jong’s personal life. Even her exact age is a mystery, though it is believed she is about four years younger than her brother, Kim Jong-un. Newspapers in South Korea and Japan reported that she is married to the son of North Korea’s ceremonial head of state, Choe Ryong-hae. Others say her husband is possibly Choe Ryong-hae’s nephew.
Kim Yo-jong reportedly has a child who is likely about two or three years old. Those who met her at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea said that she appeared as though she was either a few months pregnant or had recently given birth. Other reports, however, say she is unmarried and without children. She has occasionally been seen with a band on her left ring finger, but her marital status is not confirmed.
What is Kim Yo-jong’s relationship with the U.S.?
Kim Yo-jong has had minimal interactions with the U.S., but in the few exchanges she has had, it has cemented the indispensable nature of her role in North Korean politics. In 2018, she was the first member of the country’s dynasty to visit South Korea since the end of the Korean war in 1958.
While attending the 2018 Winter Olympics, she and Vice President Mike Pence sat just feet away from each other and did not speak. Pence was vocal in his criticism of North Korea leading up to the games and refused to attend a dinner earlier that night where he was seated at the same table as Kim Yo-jong, reports CNN.
As the confidant and second in command to her brother, Kim Yo-jong recently began making public statements. In March, she publicly praised President Donald Trump after he sent a letter to Kim Jong-un in which he expressed a desire to maintain good bilateral relations and offered to help North Korea with the coronavirus pandemic. Her ability to make public statements illustrates her central role in the North Korean regime. She has also accompanied Kim Jong-un to both summits he had with Trump, in 2018 and again in 2019.