The situation in the DPRK is drawing attention towards an individual who has apparently already been “chosen as Kim Jong-un’s successor”.
In fact, nothing has been decided for sure. But, in recent years, Kim Yo-jong has been rising up the career ladder fairly quickly, and amid individuals who are on average twice her age, the young woman has unsurprisingly garnered attention from the public.
The sister of the current DPRK leader is a few years younger than her brother. However, her exact birth date is still unknown. Supposedly, she was born in 1988 or 1989. During her childhood, she studied in Bern, Switzerland, along with her brother Kim Jong-un. Afterwards, she completed a degree in computer science at Kim Il-sung University in Pyongyang. Kim Yo-jong became a member of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) in the middle of 2000s.
She had rarely appeared in public before 2010, when she was recognized as one of the participants at the 3rd Conference of the WPK. The next year, she was regularly seen at her father Kim Jong-il’s side. At the end of 2011, Kim Yo-jong was spotted at his funeral service. However, for quite some time, there was little news about her or her political views. She is rumored to have been a confidante to her brother, but she “was not mentioned by North Korean state media until March 2014”.
Still, once it came to light that Kim Yo-jong had become an official of the ruling party, the process of turning her into the next DPRK leader began straight away. The reasons behind such a move were similar to those that exist today: Kim Jong-un has health problems, and since he is under constant pressure because of stress and overwork, it is prudent to look for his replacement. In April 2020, certain Japanese media outlets reported rumors, which had been circulating more than a year ago, about the possibility of Kim Yo-jong becoming a figurehead leader of North Korea.
According to some experts, Kim Yo-jong “has direct access to and strong influence on” her brother; “she has performed the role of propagandist-in-chief” and “has demonstrated skills at modernizing the brand of the regime”, and she is “rumored to be the brains behind Kim Jong-un’s carefully constructed public image, at home and abroad”. In 2017, the United States placed Kim Yo-jong “on a blacklist for severe human rights abuses”.
Kim Yo-jong made her first widely publicized appearance abroad in 2018 as part of the North Korean delegation to the Olympic games in South Korea. Since then, there has been a “considerable thaw” in relations between the DPRK and the United States, which, on a tactical level, could be attributed to her influence.
Kim Yo-jong received a great deal of attention from South Korean and global media outlets because she looked and behaved as a modern leader at the games. She was elegant and reserved. Even former analyst at the CIA Sue Mi Terry called Kim Yo-jong “the Ivanka Trump of North Korea”. This image is supported by the impression she has made on diplomats and experts who have had a chance to communicate with her face-to-face. Many describe her as a charming, intelligent and feisty young woman.
After Kim Yo-jong’s visit to South Korea, a few people started viewing her as a proponent of liberalism and even a key “dove figure” in the DPRK administration. Hence, after the no-deal North Korea–United States Summit in Hanoi in 2019, rumors began circulating that Kim Yo-jong “had been dismissed from the powerful” Politburo (the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the WPK) (). In addition, Kim Yo-jong was not among Kim Jong-un’s entourage during his visit to Vladivostok, Russia, in April 2019. One researcher said her absence could be explained by the fact that she had seemed “to have been in the public eye too much”, thus “her frequent appearances could overshadow” her brother’s glory.
However, another reason for her disappearance from the limelight could be connected to pregnancy and subsequent childbirth. In March 2019, Kim Yo-jong was elected as a deputy to the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA), which means that she did not completely fall from grace in the DPRK.
In any case, Kim Yo-jong once again began appearing in published photographs since June 3, 2019. And at the end of that month, South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) reported that photographs showing Kim Yo-jong “standing in the same line as Choe Ryong-hae, the head of the Supreme People’s Assembly, and Foreign Minister Ri Su-yong”, as she greeted the PRC leader, proved that she had consolidated her position. At around the same time, “one former intelligence official” told the Chosun Ilbo that “her promotion could be aimed at establishing her as a successor in case of an emergency”.
According to media reports of 31 August 2019, Kim Yo-jong was the First Deputy Director of the Propaganda and Agitation Department of WPK as well as the First Deputy Director of the Organization and Guidance Department of the Central Committee of WPK (responsible for completely implementing the teaching and decisions of the Great Leader, President Kim Il-sung). A few experts believe that Kim Yo-jong appears to be following in the footsteps of DPRK leader’s aunt, Kim Kyong-hui. She is the widow of Jang Song-thaek who was executed earlier.
In 2020, Kim Yo-jong started making statement in her own name. On March 4, 2020, she strongly criticized South Korea’s reaction towards ballistic missile launches carried out by the DPRK. “As far as I know, the south side is also fond of joint military exercises and it is preoccupied with all the disgusting acts like purchasing ultra-modern military hardware,” she added. Later on that same month, “she publicly praised Donald Trump for sending Kim a letter in which he said he hoped to maintain good bilateral relations and offered help in dealing with the Coronavirus pandemic”.
In some media reports, she has been referred to as the First Vice Department Director of WPK Central Committee without any mention of the name of the department. Perhaps it is the Propaganda and Agitation or the Organization and Guidance Department, or she could be actually the Deputy Director of both of them.
And again, the Chosun Ilbo cited an unnamed source in its report saying that Kim Yo-jong took care “of all party business whenever Kim Jong-un” was on a tour of the provinces. According to the newspaper article, she was also rumored to be in charge of “everything except military affairs”.
On April 11, Kim Yo-jong was appointed as “an alternate Politburo member” during the plenary meeting of the WPK Central Committee.
On April 29, South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency reported that, according to an analysis report compiled by the National Assembly Research Service, Kim Yo-jong “could succeed” her brother as the official North Korea leader. In response to this forecast, American conservatives wrote a spiteful article, which said that the appointment of Kim Yo-jong as the DPRK ruler “would be more bad news” for “the long-suffering North Korean people — and the rest of the world” because she would still “rule with an iron fist”. “Kim Jong-un’s evil shall long live after him, as will Kim Yo-jong’s — unless the US shakes off the illusion of playing nice, remembers history, and finally firms up and bankrupts the evil kleptocracy she will inherit,” concluded the report.
However, there are no indications yet that a successor is being groomed for the “throne”. In the DPRK, there are typically several signs that point to ongoing preparations of a potential heir for the leadership role, such as giving this individual a special title, composing songs in their honor, etc. Kim Yo-jong has not been treated in the above manner thus far. And although there have been many memes about a female DPRK leader, numerous experts believe that just as Kim Kyong-hui, Kim Yo-jong will not be the first choice for the top job.
In any case, what is certain is that we can all see a bright new star in the North Korean skies whose merits are not solely based on her ancestry.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.