North Korea’s “First Sister” has stepped into the shoes of her tyrannical brother Kim Jong-un. She’s threatened “appropriate, quick and overwhelming action” against US and South Korean military forces.
But her words – and the surprise debut of Mr Kim’s youngest daughter – have reignited debate about the hermit kingdom’s future.
Is something going on with Kim Jong-un?
International affairs analysts are startled at the 39-year-old’s recent deviations from long-established Kim dynasty behaviour.
This year he’s introduced his “most beloved” young daughter, Kim Ju-ae, to the world. No previous child from the Kim family has been made public before they were adults.
And he’s allowing his younger Kim Yo-jong sister to speak for him.
Ms Kim, 35, this week proclaimed Pyongyang is monitoring the “restless military moves by the US forces” and its South Korean “puppet military”. She added North Korea is ready to respond “at any time according to our judgment”.
It’s precisely the kind of “fire and fury” rhetoric the world has come to expect from the Kim dynasty’s paramount leader. Not from his sisters. Or brothers.
And in a nation where a single man’s word is law, the fact such words came from her mouth is almost certainly a deliberate signalling act.
Is it a sign of the “Great Leader’s” failing health?
On the surface, the imagery of the North Korean leader doting on his loving daughter while strolling around intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) facilities, watching soccer games and overseeing military parades serves to entrench the family as North Korea’s hereditary rulers. As do Yo-jong’s bellicose broadcasts.
But there may be more to it than simply dynastic succession.
“The world is abuzz with speculation about what this may mean,” international relations analyst Emily Charley says. “Kim’s ‘beloved daughter’ is part of a growing list of women assuming prominent public roles in North Korea and redefining gender dynamics in North Korean society.”
But there’s also North Korea’s growing nuclear threat.
“What good are those nukes if the state cannot protect the person that has the authority to launch them?” East Asia nuclear weapons analyst Khang Vu says. “The real message from Ju-ae’s appearance might be that Kim will choose to extend the launch authority exclusively to the members of his family.”
Words of power
“The Pacific Ocean does not belong to the dominium of the US or Japan,” Kim Yo-jong proclaimed earlier this week.
It’s not the first time she has vented her family’s fury at Washington and Seoul. Earlier this year, she threatened Pyongyang would turn the Pacific Ocean into a “shooting range” if they did not cease joint military training exercises.
Last year, she declared her country was ready to use nuclear weapons to “eliminate” South Korea’s military if it chose to attack.
Given the Kim dynasty’s repeated threats to detonate nuclear warheads on their enemies over recent decades, how much weight should be placed on Ms Kim’s words is suspect. But the fact she said those words entrenches her as one of the most influential figures in her brother’s regime.
Analysts say we can expect North Korea to react dramatically to South Korea and the US resuming military drills on the peninsula next week for the first time in five years.
That’s likely to include the launch of at least one of North Korea’s new ICBMs.
Ms Kim dismissed a reported threat by the US Indo-Pacific Command’s chief to shoot them down.
“The Pacific Ocean does not belong to the dominium of the US or Japan,” she said in an official statement.
“It is very interesting to see how the US, whose forces frequently conduct the test launches of strategic weapons in the Pacific every year as if the ocean were its yard, will respond if a third country attempts to intercept them under the reason for counteraction.”
Exactly how much power Kim Yo-jong holds, however, remains uncertain.
Especially given Kim Jong-un’s surprise appearances with his 10-year-old daughter.
“North Korea’s political system gives absolute power to the leader, which is both a strength and a vulnerability,” University of Bradford Professor Christopher Bluth says. “Kim Jong-un, who came to power in 2011 shortly after the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, has had to constantly struggle to prevent the emergence of alternative centres of power. Unlike his father, Kim had only a short time to prepare for leadership and was (and remains, at 39) quite young in a culture that reveres elders.”
And ongoing speculation about his health can only undermine his position.
His obesity, heavy smoking, heavy drinking and family history of kidney and heart disease only fuel the flames.
Rumours exploded around the world after he disappeared from view in April 2020. Some reports claimed he was in “grave danger” after failed heart surgery. But he returned to public life after nearly three weeks, seemingly just as healthy as normal.
It wasn’t the first time he’d been the subject of such a scare.
In 2014, Mr Kim vanished for about six weeks. He reappeared, leaning heavily on a cane.
Centre for Strategic Studies Korea analysts Dr Katrin Fraser Katz and Dr Victor Cha warned as early as 2020 that the leader’s apparent frail health meant the nuclear power was perpetually on the brink of a leadership crisis.
“If Kim Jong-un’s disappearance was related to his health problems, the episode may have prompted him to identify and begin grooming a successor, just as his father and grandfather did years before they died,” they argue. “So far, however, Kim has not publicly designated anyone to replace him, and the North Korean constitution does not detail a process for transferring power.”
Among the most obvious possible successors is Kim Jong-un’s younger sister, Kim Yo-jong.
Unusually for the Kim family, her rise to political prominence has been a steady process. She’s been the highest-profile member of the Kim bloodline for the past decade. Her uncle, Kim Pyong-il, became another contender after returning from a diplomatic posting in Europe.
But being a North Korean Kim dynasty prince or princess comes with well-entrenched risks.
Kim Jong-un’s half-brother Kim Jong-nam was assassinated in 2017. He was dosed with a nerve agent while at Kuala Lumpur airport in Malaysia.
Another uncle, Jang Song-thaek, was reportedly charged with treason and put before a firing squad in 2013.
“So the status of Kim Yo-jong’s relationship with her brother is as scrutinised as Kim Jong-un’s physical health when it comes to if – and when – she might be in a position to challenge for ultimate power in North Korea,” International Institute of Korea Studies deputy director Sojin Lim says.
But so far Ms Kim has managed to play her role of Propaganda and Agitation Department chief to her brother’s satisfaction.
She first appeared in 2018 as part of North Korea’s Winter Olympics delegation to South Korea. There she engaged in high-profile meetings with then-South Korean president Moon Jae-in, US vice president Mike Pence, and then-Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe.
She went on to meet Chinese Chairman Xi Jinping and was there when her brother met then-US president Donald Trump.
“Little is known about Kim Yo-jong’s childhood, though. Even her date of birth is clouded in uncertainty,” Dr Lim says.
What is known is she is Kim Jong-il’s youngest child. And her mother was a Japanese woman, Ko Yong-hui.
Kim Jong-il reportedly destroyed Yo-jong’s birth certificate to prevent her from being assigned to a lower “songbun” racial caste, and sent her to Switzerland to be educated alongside her brother.
The unveiling of Kim Jong-un’s 10-year-old daughter, Ju-ae, was a surprise. Neither the existence of Kim nor his father, Kim Jong-il, had been acknowledged before they became adults.
South Korean media has reported Kim has three children. The eldest, a son, is said to have been born in 2010. The other two are daughters, one born in 2013 and the youngest in 2017.
“Kim Ju-ae – as the daughter is believed to be called – joins her mother and aunt as the only relatives seen publicly accompanying Kim Jong-un,” Ms Charley writes in The Diplomat.
“This alone marks a notable departure from the reigns of her grandfather Kim Jong-il and great-grandfather Kim Il-sung, whose female family members rarely appeared in public.”
The North Korean leader has previously publicly proclaimed Ju-ae his “most beloved” and “precious” child. North Korean media gives her the title “respected”.
For her part, Ju-ae called her father “a good dad”.
Such public affirmation has traditionally been seen in North Korea as a sign of anointment for succession. But not all international analysts are so sure.
“We’ve been told that Kim has three children, including possibly a son,” global policy think tank RAND Corporation analyst Soo Kim recently told US media. “If this is true, and if we assume that the male child – who has yet to be revealed – will be the heir, is Ju-ae truly Kim’s most ‘precious’ from a succession standpoint? I think it is too early to draw any conclusions.”
Ju-ae made her first public appearance with her father on November 18 last year. The occasion was the launch of a Hwasong-17 ICBM.
She appeared again on February 18. This time she attended a festival celebrating her grandfather’s birthday anniversary.
Just two days earlier, North Korea issued a new stamp.
“The scene is a simple yet unadulterated portrayal of a tender familial bond – just a girl, her father, and a massive Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile,” Ms Charley says.
“It alludes to a familial sense of nationalism, whereby the abstract, class-oriented imagery of socialism has been replaced with the more relatable and recognisable image of connection, love and obligation for one’s family.”
It’s a signal also noticed by Carnegie Endowment for International Peace nuclear analyst Ankit Panda. “Both of her initial public appearances have been in the context of strategic nuclear weapons – the crown jewels of North Korea’s national defence capabilities,” he said.
“That doesn’t strike me as coincidental.”
“The photos of North Korea’s Kim Jong-un standing hand-in-hand with a girl, reported to be the first public sighting of his daughter Kim Ju-ae, watching the launch of the country’s largest intercontinental ballistic missile aroused much speculation about what signal the regime wanted to send,” weapons analyst Khang Vu writes in the Lowy Interpreter.
“The fact that Kim chose to showcase the princess at such a young age at an ICBM launch event, and later in a group photo with scientists and officials involved in the launch, suggests her appearance has most to do with how the regime wants to protect its nuclear program.”
The motive may be to establish a successor to the Kim family throne.
It may be about justifying North Korea’s hardships.
It could also be an attempt to win the hearts and minds of a struggling populace.
But the common theme behind these elements is the nuclear weapons program, Mr Vu says.
“North Korea’s long-term goal has been to increase the survivability of its nuclear arsenal by means of redundancy, concealment and hardening. And this explains the country’s relentless push for a complete nuclear arsenal in the face of sanctions.”
But a central concern for any nuclear power is a resilient and reliable chain of command. It’s not something a family dynasty will entrust to bureaucrats or military commanders.
Ant that means North Korea’s military arsenal would be rendered powerless if Kim Jong-un was killed or isolated.
“It is likely that Kim’s sister Kim Yo-jong might already be in line for launch authority if her brother is incapacitated, for she has often publicly carried out nuclear threats on behalf of the regime,” Mr Vu says.
“Kim bringing his daughter to the launch site could also help increase her future authority among the nuclear scientists and officers. And Ju-ae does not have to be North Korea’s next leader – which is a dubious proposition given that she has an older sibling – for her to play a role in ensuring the survival of the nuclear arsenal.”