Against the backdrop of unconfirmed reports about Kim Jong-un’s health, the ascension of the North Korean leader’s youngest sister Kim Yo-jong following his death has often been contemplated by analysts amid speculations about who else might lead the reclusive nation.
While the sister of Kim Jong-un is increasingly looking like the senior North Korean official making public statements addressing the international community, Kim Yo Jong is not the one calling the shots, claim experts cited by Newsweek.
Amid numerous reports speculating on her brother’s health, after he appeared to have lost a lot of weight earlier this year, Kim Yo-jong has been increasingly delivering statements on behalf of the North Korean government. However, “this does not mean she is the one in control,” claims Gabiela Bernal, a Korean Affairs Analyst based in Seoul.
Kim Jong-un is “still very much the one calling the shots, as far as we know,” Bernal was cited by the outlet as saying.
© AP Photo / Lee Jin-man
A man watches a TV screen showing a news program with a file image of Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un, at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, June 17, 2020.
It was suggested that the North Korean leader was using his sister, whose precise date of birth is unknown, though South Korea’s Unification Ministry database lists her as being born in 1988 in Pyongyang, as a “mouthpiece” to vent warnings and threats aimed at South Korea and the United States.
Kim Yo-jong is the younger sister of Kim Jong Un and the youngest-known daughter of their father Kim Jong Il, who ruled North Korea from 1994 to 2011.
She emerged from relative obscurity in 2009, after Kim Jong Un was tipped as heir to the North Korean leadership. Kim Yo-jong eventually seemed to gain clout, appearing by brother’s side during key events, attending all three face-to-face meetings between then-President Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un.
She was thrust into the spotlight when she attended the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.
© AP Photo / Felipe Dana
Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, right, and North Korea’s nominal head of state Kim Yong Nam, talk as they for the start of the preliminary round of the women’s hockey game between Switzerland and the combined Koreas at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Gangneung, South Korea, Saturday, Feb. 10, 2018.
In 2020, when her brother was rumored to be seriously ill, she began signing off on official government statements that lambasted Washington’s demand for North Korea’s complete denuclearization, and admonished Seoul’s failure to stop a South Korea-based group sending antiregime leaflets over the border.
“This way, the comments don’t fall directly on him and he can always backtrack through later statements to reopen the door for some form of diplomacy or talks,” Bernal said.
In a statement on 10 August Kim Yo-jong denounced upcoming “dangerous” joint drills of the United States and South Korea as a “rehearsal” of nuclear war.
The deputy department director of the Workers’ Party of Korea Central Committee, she vowed that Pyongyang will accelerate the strengthening of its defense capacities in response.
“Whatever the scale and mode, the joint military exercises are of aggressive nature as they are a war rehearsal and preliminary nuclear war exercise for further rounding off the preparations for putting into practice the operational plan with the preemptive strike at us as the gist,” Kim Yo-jong was quoted by the Korean Central News Agency as saying.
Kim Yo-jong is perceived by analysts as likely a “secondary voicer” to Kim Jong-un himself. The tactic may have been deliberately conceived amid North Korea’s repartee with the US and South Korea.
Kim Yo-jong could never become the leader of the country, agrees Tom Fowdy, North Korea and China Analysis at the Chollima Report. He suggested that North Korea sought to portray Kim Jon-un as more of a “good cop” and his sister as more of a “bad cop”.
© AP Photo / Lee Jin-man
A man wearing a face mask sits in front of a TV screen showing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Friday, Jan. 15, 2021
Regarding relations with South Korea, Kim Yo-jong acts more as an “angry messenger”, voicing discontent and disapproval, yet always “leaving the door open” to possible future talks for her brother.
Weighing in on rumors that Kim Yo-jong might succeed her brother to become the next possible leader of North Korea, Gabiela Bernal claimed that her gender would be an obstacle in her native society.
“The only thing she has going for her is her bloodline, without which no woman would ever have such political influence in that country. If anything were to happen to KJU, it would be more likely that a high-level military figure loyal to the Kim family would take over in an official capacity while KYJ would play a more symbolic or ceremonial role. But it’s too early to say for sure,” said the Korean Affairs Analyst.
As for reports of Kim Jong-un’s ostensibly failing health, they are often based on hearsay or speculation, said Tom Fowdy. Thus, CNN reported on April 21 2020 that North Korea’s leader was gravely unwell after surgery. The expert advised against thinking “too deeply” into the “circus of hysteria in the media”.
© REUTERS / KCNA
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaks at a meeting of the Workers’ Party of Korea in Pyongyang, North Korea in this image released June 18, 2021 by the country’s Korean Central News Agency.
“Kim has lost a lot of weight obviously, but that could be political in view to the country’s situation as much as it may be health related,” he said.
Kim Jong-un successor is often speculated on by media reports and regional experts. The North Korean leader is believed to have had three children with his wife Ri Sol Ju since their marriage in 2009, with at least one of them reportedly a boy. Experts emphasize that to become the successor is not an automatic “father-to-son trait” and could be challenged by other contenders.
© REUTERS / KCNA
People lay floral tributes in front of the bronze statues of the late leaders Kim Il Sung and his son Kim Jong Il to commemorate the Day of the Shining Star, the birth anniversary of Kim Jong Il, at the Mansudae Grand Monument in Pyongyang, North Korea in this undated photo released by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on February 17, 2021.
“Any hypothetical successor would have to be a Kim family member. North Korea’s constitution specifically mentions Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il,” New York-based political analyst and Asian affairs specialist Sean King was cited as saying in April 2020.