PYONGYANG: Of all the family members who could eventually take the reins from North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, his sister seems like the obvious choice.
Kim Yo-jong, in her early 30s, has been by her brother’s side at summits with US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping, sat behind Vice President Mike Pence while representing North Korea at the 2018 Winter Olympics and became the first immediate member of the ruling family to visit Seoul, where she delivered a personal message from her brother inviting South Korean President Moon Jae-in to a summit.
The biggest potential hang-up: She’s a woman in a society rigidly controlled by men. While many North Korea watchers say bloodline is more important than gender, others are skeptical.
“Yo Jong’s role will likely be limited to a regent at most” due to North Korea’s feudal patriarchy, said Yoo Ho-yeol, who teaches North Korean studies at Korea University and formerly advised South Korea’s unification ministry and defence ministry.
“Not only the male-dominant leadership, but also ordinary people there would resist a female leader.”
The question of whether Kim Yo-jong will become North Korea’s first woman leader has suddenly become front and centre as questions about her brother’s health intensify.
Kim Jong-un hasn’t appeared in state media in two weeks, prompting a flurry of reports suggesting he could be incapacitated.
The Kim family dynasty has ruled North Korea for three generations since its founding after World War II, when the Soviet Union and the US divided up control of the Korean Peninsula.
Over that time, it has built up one of the world’s most vigorous personality cults — making the preeminent claim to legitimacy in the dictatorship a bloodline said to stem from the sacred Mount Paektu near the Chinese border.
When Kim Jong-un took power after his father’s death in 2011, the big question was whether a leader in his 20s could rule a country that revered seniority.
He soon exerted authority over geriatric generals and eliminated potential rivals: He executed his uncle and one-time deputy, Jang Song-thaek, and was suspected to have ordered the assassination of his exiled older half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, in Malaysia.
In many ways, Kim Yo-jong — who has spent nearly a decade enmeshed in the state apparatus — has been better groomed to take over the top leadership role.
She could also similarly surprise anyone who doubts her ability to run the country, according to Soo Kim, a Rand Corp policy analyst who specialises in Korean Peninsula issues.
Begins and ends
“I don’t think she needs to worry about gaining acceptance as a leader by the North Korean people by virtue of her Kim family bloodline,” Soo Kim said. “North Korea’s fate begins and ends with the Kim family.”
The other potential male Kim heirs are younger or less experienced in the halls of power in Pyongyang.
His brother Kim Jong-chol has no official title and seems to be more interested in playing guitar than politics, while his nephew, Kim Han-sol, has denounced the regime and is believed to be living abroad.
South Korean media reported that Kim Jong-un has a 10-year-old son, but none of his children have been officially mentioned in state media.
Thae Yong-ho, the former No 2 at North Korea’s embassy in London who defected to South Korea, said in a radio interview that one potential successor is Kim Pyong-il, the only surviving son of North Korea’s founder Kim Il-sung who returned to the country last year following four decades overseas serving as a diplomat.
“Those who’re serving Kim Jong-un are the first generation in their 60s through 80s, so there’s at least a 30-year age gap with Yo-jong. In their eyes, Yo-jong is just a novice,” Thae said.
The same argument was made when Kim Jong-un took power, though his youth didn’t block his ascent or his control over the old guard.
Either way, Kim Yo-jong remains the most prominent heir. Born in either 1988 or 1989, she was once a chubby-cheeked girl who loved dancing and was nicknamed “Princess Yo-jong” by her father, the late dictator Kim Jong-il, according to a biography of Kim Jong-un titled “The Great Successor” by Anna Fifield.
She joined her brother at a school in Bern, Switzerland until about 2000 and later came back to study in North Korea.
Her appearance by her brother’s side at the time of their father’s death let the North Korean public know she was a part of the Paektu bloodline.
She soon had a position in the Workers’ Party Propaganda and Agitation Department, according to South Korea, where she was responsible for managing the image of the leader in state media — a post similar to one held by her father when he was being groomed for succession.
She steadily rose through the ranks and became a closer confidante to her brother, accompanying him on inspection tours of factories, farms and military units.
Then her high-profile appearances on the international stage, which included mundane tasks like helping the leader extinguish a cigarette during a train stop in China, helped cement her status.
“When Kim Yo-jong has risen as high as she already has, she is no longer considered a woman but a leader who inherited greater legitimacy to rule than others,” said Chun Yungwoo, South Korea’s former envoy to international nuclear talks with North Korea.
“North Korea certainly is one of the most male chauvinistic societies in the world, but bloodline supplemented by status in the Korea Workers’ Party supersedes gender.”
Kim Yo-jong’s clout was on display last month when she personally responded to a letter from Trump offering assistance to fight Covid-19.
In a statement carried by state-run Korean Central News Agency, she said Trump’s “close relations” with her brother weren’t enough to settle differences between the longstanding enemies — providing a glimpse into how she would handle US-North Korea ties if she does take power.
“We try to hope for the day when the relations between the two countries would be as good as the ones between the two top leaders, but it has to be left to time and be watched whether it can actually happen,” she said.
“However, we will never lose or waste time for nothing, but will keep changing ourselves to be more powerful for that time just as how we made ourselves for the past two years.”
Kim Hong-gul, the youngest son of former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and a lawmaker-elect, said Kim Yo-jong looked firmly in control when a delegation from Seoul visited Pyongyang as part of a summit between the leaders of the countries in 2018.
“I saw from a distance, at the airport upon our arrival and the banquet in Pyongyang, Yo Jong meticulously taking care of everything near her brother,” Kim Hong-gul said. “It looked like she was the top supervisor on the site.”
On paper, there’s nothing stopping a woman from taking power in North Korea, even though its rubber-stamp parliament shows the vast majority of its members are older men — one of the least gender diverse in the world. The constitution says “women are accorded an equal social status and rights with men.”
Still, some analysts don’t think Kim Yo-jong could hold sway over the country’s generals who command the nuclear weapons program, which for many in Pyongyang represents the main guarantor of protection against a US war for regime change.
Ra Jong-yil, former deputy director of South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, said it was more likely the country is run by a military junta than Kim Yo-jong.
Playing the game
“It is almost unthinkable to have a female leader in North Korea” in part due to its “unique patriarchy based on the Confucianism,” said Lee Byong-chul, a former South Korea presidential adviser on national security issues who is now a professor at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies in Seoul.
He questioned whether she could control the “old male generals” without her brother’s influence, and saw it more likely that either her uncle Kim Pyong-il or nominal head of state Choe Ryong-hae takes over.
Still, North Korea’s “cult-driven system” makes it essential to have a family member in charge, and Kim Jo Yong “has shown that she knows how to exercise authority,” according to Sung-Yoon Lee, who teaches Korean Studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Massachusetts.
“The generals with the big guns have every interest in protecting their own power and they understand that power runs through the Kim family,” he said. “She will be able to wield power through a mix of terror and promotions. She knows how to play the game.”