Kim Yo Jong, the younger sister of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, has garnered a significant amount of press recently as rumors have swirled around her brother’s supposed disappearance and potential health problems.
According to North Korean media outlets, Kim Jong Un was recently seen attending an official ceremony near the capital Pyongyang, although the report and images authenticity has not yet been independently verified.
Per North Korean leadership rules, Kim Jong Un, internally known as the Supreme Leader, essentially has absolute power to dictate policy in the country. Thus far, succession of power for the role of Supreme Leader has been based on family lineage. In other words, Kim Jong Un’s heirs would have the right to inherit the title, just as he did from his father and grandfather.
He is believed to have three children, with the youngest presumed to be 10 years old, meaning that in the case of imminent succession, a regent would need to assume power. Some analysts claim that if the regime’s hand was forced, a potential choice for a successor could be Kim Yo Jong.
Nevertheless, such speculations are far from proven.
South Korean intelligence has reported “no unusual developments” to suggest that Kim Jong Un is in grave condition.
Rise in government
Kim Yo Jong, at just 30 years old – although some outlets claim she is a bit older – is a relative newcomer within the North Korean government. As a young girl, she was educated in Switzerland before moving back to North Korea when she was around 12 years old.
Her first public appearance that caught the attention of international news outlets was during the funeral of her father, Kim Jong Il, the ruler of the country from 1994 to 2011. In 2015, she was given her first role within the government, the vice director of a national office officially called the Department of Propaganda and Agitation.
The Propagation and Agitation Department is in charge of maintaining the Supreme Leader’s cult-like status throughout the country.
She has since expanded her role. In 2017, she was named as an alternate member to the country’s politburo, the principal policy making group in one-party communist states, as modeled off the USSR. She was dismissed from the politburo in 2019, only to be reinstated as an alternate member this year.
Chance at leadership?
Although some political analysts claim that Kim Yo Jong would have a considerable chance to become the next Supreme Leader in the case that her brother became incapacitated, others say there would be more likely candidates.
According to Fyodor Tertitskiy, an expert in North Korean politics at Kookmin University in Seoul, South Korea, it isn’t beyond reason that she gains power.
“Unless another member of the Kim family comes in charge, for her the things will be very simple.” Tertitskiy said. “Either she takes the mantle of the Supreme Leader or loses all power and potentially her life as well.”
Still, others say that more experienced members of the ruling class would have a greater chance of becoming Supreme Leader.
Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, an American think tank, argues that it would be unlikely for Kim Yo Jong to assume leadership, especially since she is a female.
“Political power in North Korea has been overwhelmingly male, and society remains deeply patriarchal, even as the leaders sell themselves with maternal imagery of their “loving care” and the “mother party,” he wrote.
“Kim Yo Jong’s power appears to be purely derivative, bestowed by her brother, and she lacks the extensive connections and relationships that would be crucial if she took power,” Bandow added, before concluding, “She might play a role in a collective leadership and be trotted out publicly for appropriate events, but she is unlikely to emerge as No. 1, let alone the only one.”
One of the hallmarks of the Kim family regime is that the bloodline is seen as a cornerstone of its legitimacy on power.
In a move not seen since 1994, North Korea recently revised the ruling party’s official credo, called “the 10 fundamental principles of the ruling Workers’ Party.”
Changes include an amendment saying that the party will be “kept alive forever by the Baekdu bloodline.”
Baekdu refers to the highest mountain range on the Korean peninsula, and official doctrine says it is considered a sacred place where Kim Il Sung, the nation’s founder, fought back against foreign aggression in the creation of the North Korean state. It is also said to be the birthplace of his successor, Kim Jong Il.
In the event of Kim Jong Un’s death, it is therefore unlikely that anyone outside of the family’s bloodline would be able to hold power.
For Leif-Eric Easley, associate professor of international studies at Ewha University in Seoul, Kim Yo Jong should continue to influence the government, even if rumors of its current leader’s demise are unfounded.
“The North Korean regime is a family business, and Kim Jong Un appears to place trust in his sister,” he said. “She has demonstrated skills at modernizing the brand of the regime and has some sway over state propaganda. Her most important function is probably as a confidante to her brother.”