Pyongyang’s Princess: The Rise of Kim Yo-Jong
As rumors about the health of Kim Jung-un proliferated, analysts pushed the narrative that Kim Yo-jong, his sister, had taken over the leadership role of North Korea. Even a former South Korean diplomat quipped that Kim “is in a coma” and, though his life was not over, “Kim Yo-jong is being brought to the fore as the vacuum cannot be maintained for a prolonged period.” On the surface, this analysis has merits as Kim Yo-jong, over the past two years, has continued a fairly rapid rise within the North Korean bureaucracy. Despite such a rapid rise, Kim Yo-jong is unlikely to be the successor or maintain any real legitimacy as the North Korean leader given societal norms surrounding women and her current political positions.
Over the past two years, Kim Yo-jong rapidly rose to prominence. In 2018, she traveled as an emissary of North Korea to the Pyeongchang Winter Olympic Games, where she “charmed” the international press and garnered seemingly positive international press for the North Korean regime. Following her successful trip, she was officially promoted to Vice Chair of the Propaganda and Agitation Department of the Korean Worker’s Party, a post which provides her major input into the maintenance of Kim Jung-un’s cult-of-personality.
Outside of her Olympic performance, Kim Yo-Jong has been appointed to various other high-level positions within the bureaucracy, including a 2017 appointment as an Alternate Member of the Politburo and as elected Representative to the 14th Supreme People’s Assembly in 2019. She also retains a position on the Central Committee of the Korean Worker’s Party. In retaining these positions, Kim Yo-jong continues to maintain access to political pulse of Pyongyang and the elite.
Throughout 2020, her impact on North Korean policy has been clear through two statements released in March. Her first statement called South Korean political leaders idiots and denounced their thinking as imbecilic for opposing North Korea’s most recent missile tests. Later the same month, she thanked President Trump for offering assistance against COVID-19; she later declined the assistance. In June, her tone escalated as she denounced North Korean defectors and the South Korean President. She also threatened to send North Korean military forces into the DMZ.
Despite her meteoric rise, several political and cultural factors limit her ability to rise within the North Korean system. First, although the role of women within North Korean society is changing, North Korea remains highly patriarchal. Women within the North Korean bureaucracy typically serve as leaders of historically significant sites and other certain sectors of society. Images of women in power are carefully managed to serve the regime’s purposes. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that high-ranking cadre within North Korea will support granting ultimate authority to Yo-jong simply because she is a woman.
Second, her rise and increasing influence in the system has slowed over the past year. At an expanded meeting of the Politburo in April 2020, Kim Yo-jong was not promoted and retained her position as an Alternate Member of the Politburo, a position she has held since 2018. Just days after threatening military action in June, Kim Jung-un called off North Korea’s military actions and walked back her threats to position more troops on high-alert at the demilitarized zone. In short, Kim Yo-jong’s access remains the same and her impact on policy appears to be sustained at arm’s length.
Finally, Kim Yo-jong still does not hold any positions critical to securing the transition to her as leader of North Korea, as of writing. She does not hold any militarily significant position and she is not a full member of any party committee. Her other positions remain very siloed. Overall, though she maintains a fairly powerful voice within the North Korean system, her current positions indicate she is unlikely to be her brother’s successor.
Without a clear successor, a sudden vacuum of power in North Korea is likely to spark a quiet power struggle in upper echelons of the bureaucratic apparatus between the reformers and the military. Kim Yo-Jong likely will vie for power during this struggle, using her lineage and relation to Kim Jung-un to her advantage. At the moment, successfully outmaneuvering senior party leadership in a power struggle is the only way for Kim Yo-Jong to secure legitimacy as the Supreme Leader.