Of all the family members who could eventually take the reins from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, his sister seems to be the obvious choice.
Kim Yo Jong, in her early 30s, was at her brother's summit with U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping, sat behind Vice President Mike Pence and represented North Korea at the 2018 Winter Olympics and became the first direct member of The Ruling The family visited Seoul, where she delivered a personal message from her brother, inviting South Korean President Moon Jae-in to a summit.
The biggest potential problem: she is a woman in a society that is strictly controlled by men. While many North Korea observers say the bloodline is more important than gender, others are skeptical.
"Due to the feudal patriarchy of North Korea, Yo Jong's role is likely to be limited to one regent," said Yoo Ho-yeol, who taught North Korean at Korea University and previously advised the South Korean Department of Defense. "Not only the male-dominated leadership, but also the ordinary people there would oppose a female leader."
The question of whether Kim Yo Jong will become North Korea's first female executive has suddenly come to the fore as questions about her brother's health become more acute. Kim Jong Un has not appeared in the state media for two weeks, resulting in a series of reports indicating that he may be unable to act.
The Kim family has ruled North Korea for three generations since its creation after World War II when the Soviet Union and the United States shared control of the Korean peninsula. During this time, it built up one of the strongest personality cults in the world – and made the outstanding claim to legitimacy in the dictatorship a bloodline that is said to come from the sacred mountain 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 the twenties could rule a country that revered seniority. He soon exercised authority over geriatric generals and eliminated potential rivals: he executed his uncle and one-time deputy Jang Song Thaek and was suspected of ordering the murder of his exiled older brother Kim Jong Nam in Malaysia.
In many ways, Kim Yo Jong, who was stuck in the state apparatus for almost a decade, was better prepared to take the lead. Similarly, it could surprise anyone who doubts their ability to rule the country, said Soo Kim, a political scientist at Rand Corp. who specializes in Korean peninsula analysts.
"Starts and ends"
"I don't think she has to worry that the North Korean people will be accepted as a leader in the Kim family because of her bloodline," said Soo Kim. "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 the guitar than in politics, while his nephew Kim Han Sol denounced the regime and presumably lives 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 the state media. Thae Yong Ho, former number 2 at the North Korean embassy in London who moved to South Korea, said in a radio interview that a potential successor was Kim Pyong Il, the only surviving son of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung, who returned to the United States last year after four decades overseas as a diplomat.
"Those who serve Kim Jong Un are the first generation in the 60s to 80s, so there is at least a 30-year age difference to Yo Jong. In their eyes, Yo Jong is just a novice," said Thae. The same argument was made when Kim Jong Un took power, although his youth blocked neither his rise nor his control over the old guard.
In any case, Kim Yo Jong remains the most prominent heir. She was born in 1988 or 1989 and was once a chubby cheeked girl who loved dancing. Her father, the late dictator Kim Jong Il, called her "The Great Successor" "Princess Yo Jong" "by Anna Fifield, according to a biography of Kim Jong Un. She visited her brother until about 2000 at a school in Bern, Switzerland, and later came back to study in North Korea.
Her appearance alongside her brother at the time of her father's death let the North Korean public know that she was part of the Paektu bloodline. According to South Korea, she soon had a position in the Labor Party’s propaganda and agitation department, where she was responsible for managing the leader’s image in the state media – a post that was similar to her father’s when he was cared for.
She rose steadily through the ranks and became a closer confidante of her brother, who accompanied him on inspection tours through factories, farms and military units. Then her high profile appearances on the international stage, which included everyday tasks such as putting out a cigarette during a train stop in China, helped to consolidate her status.
"When Kim Yo Jong has risen as high as she has, she is no longer considered a woman, but a leader who has inherited greater legitimacy than others," said Chun Yungwoo, South Korea's former envoy for international nuclear talks with North Korea. "North Korea is certainly one of the most manly chauvinistic societies in the world, but the bloodline, supplemented by status in the Korea Workers' Party, replaces gender."
Kim Yo Jong's clout was seen last month when she personally responded to a letter from Trump offering help in fighting Covid-19. In a statement from the Korean state central news agency, she said Trump's "close relationship" with her brother wasn't enough to resolve differences between long-term enemies – and to provide insight into how US-North Korea relations work when she takes over the power.
& # 39; Stronger & # 39;
"We are trying to hope for the day when relations between the two countries are as good as those between the two leading politicians, but it must be left to the times and to see if this can actually happen," she said. "However, we will never lose or waste time on anything, we will always change so that we are more powerful for this time, as we have done in the past two years."
Kim Hong-gul, the youngest son of former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and elected legislator, said Kim Yo Jong was in control when a delegation from Seoul visited Pyongyang at a summit between country leaders in India 2018.
"I saw from a distance that Yo Jong meticulously took care of everything near her brother when we arrived and the Pyongyang banquet at the airport," said Kim Hong-gul. "It looked like she was the top supervisor on the construction site."
On paper, nothing prevents a woman from taking power in North Korea, though the stamp parliament shows that the vast majority of its members are older men – one of the least gender-specific men in the world. The constitution states that "women have the same social status and rights as men".
Still, some analysts do not believe that Kim Yo Jong can rule the country's generals, who are in charge of the nuclear weapons program, which for many in Pyongyang is the main guarantee of protection against a US war for regime change. Ra Jong-yil, former deputy director of the South Korean National Intelligence Service, said the country is more likely to be led by a military junta than Kim Yo Jong.
Play the game
"It's almost unthinkable to have a female leader in North Korea," thanks in part to the "unique patriarchy based on Confucianism," said Lee Byong-chul, a former South Korean president's advisor on national security issues, who is now a professor at the Institute for Far East Studies in Seoul. He asked if she could control the "old male generals" without her brother's influence, and was more likely to see either her uncle Kim Pyong Il or nominal head of state Choe Ryong Hae take over.
However, North Korea's "cult-driven system" makes it imperative to have a family member at the helm, and Kim Jo Yong "has shown that she knows how to exercise authority," said Sung-Yoon Lee ~ CHECK ~, the Korean teaching graduate the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Massachusetts.
"The generals with the big arms have every interest in protecting their own power, and they understand that power flows through the Kim family," he said. "She will be able to exercise power through a mix of terror and promotion. She knows how to play the game."