New evidence suggesting that Kim Yo Jong has been promoted far beyond her former role of first sister and personal assistant to Kim Jong Un keeps cropping up. The latest is a report by the Seoul-based news organization Daily NK that she has been bumped up from alternate member to full member of the Political Bureau of the ruling Workers’ Party’s Central Committee.
“Comrade Kim Yo Jong attended the expanded Politburo meeting on July 2 as a full member,” Daily NK quotes an unnamed source as saying. “Although there is currently no way to know exactly when she became a full Politburo member, most of the officials in the meeting were aware of this fact at the time [of the meeting].”
Daily NK is known for doing most of its reporting by speaking on cellphones to people inside North Korea. Its report, if true, tends to confirm my speculation that concludes a June 15 Asia Times analysis of the outlook for the succession to ultimate power in the family dynasty in case Kim Jong Un should die.
It would be one more bit of support for my gut view that Kim Yo Jong has been chosen as successor to Kim Jong Un, in case he dies before his own son is old enough to rule – and that she is, for the time being, the regime’s pick to serve in a capacity very close to co-ruler.
Their late father Kim Jong Il, referred to by state media not by name but using the mystery title “Party Center” (soon upgraded to “Glorious Party Center”), filled the dual role of successor and enormously powerful gatekeeper/co-ruler after being secretly selected in 1974. He was not publicly confirmed as successor until 1980. The Party Center title reportedly has been resurrected, with Kim Jo Yong its likely bearer.
Some of the important recent reporting on Kim Yo Jong’s status and prospects has come from Jiro Ishimaru, chief editor of Osaka-based AsiaPress/Rimjingang, which advertises that its sources – whom Ishimaru calls “reporting partners” – provide their news using smuggled Chinese cellphones.
“To begin with, if Kim Jong Un were to suddenly die or become otherwise incapable of serving as leader, the top officials of the party and the military would step in to temporarily assume his duties,” Ishimaru wrote in one major article. “Ultimately, though, only Kim Yo Jong could be the one to inherit his supreme power.”
She became highly visible in the official media almost immediately after her father Kim Jong Il died at the end of 2011 and her elder brother took power. She was pictured riding a white horse alongside her aunt, Kim Kyung Hui, also astride a white horse – an intentionally royal image – on the slopes of the sacred Mount Paektu, where her grandfather, North Koreans founding ruler Kim Il Sung, was said to have fought against the Japanese colonialists.
Kim Yo Jong joined the party’s Central Committee four years ago and the following year began her first stint as a alternate – or candidate – member of the far more exclusive and consequential Politburo.
She really grabbed attention globally in 2018 when she visited South Korea at the time of the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics and met with President Moon Jae-in. “The visit marked the first time a member of the Kim clan had set foot in South Korean territory since the Korean War,” Ishimaru notes.
She accompanied her brother to summits with Moon, Donald Trump and Xi Jinping and was riding high until the failure of the 2019 Kim-Trump Hanoi summit. After that she was dropped from the Politburo alternates list – only to be restored in April this year.
And this year, 2020, is the year when, as her brother repeatedly has stayed out of public view for extended periods, she has emerged to take the role of bad cop in the regime. She abused South Korea as a faithless partner in North-South peace-and-unfication talks and assured Trump that sweet words about his love affair with Kim Jong Un would not suffice to resolve North Korea-US disagreements.
Ishimaru thinks she’s ambitious. “Kim Yo Jong’s portrayal to the domestic and international audience as a member of the Mount Paektu royal lineage is important as it establishes her as a de-facto second-in-command within the system. It seems that she is not a figurehead but an actual power inside the regime, groomed for possible succession,” he writes.
“Kim Yo Jong also seems to enjoy her exposure to the public through the many pictures and videos released by state media. Rather than being simply satisfied with a public image as a proud and diligent younger sister of Kim Jong Un, though, she seems intent upon climbing the ranks within the regime.”
Ishmaru cites the Ten Great Principles, a pocket-sized little-red-book that he says is of supreme importance in laying down the law in North Korea. He reports that it was “revised in June 2013 in line with the Kim Jong Un era. One of the sentences added with the revision reads, ‘We will maintain the prestige of our party and revolution through the Paektu bloodline forever.’ Another reads, ‘We must adhere thoroughly to this purity.’
“In this supreme code,” Ishimaru says, “it is stipulated that there can be no leader outside of the Kim clan and that power will be passed on within the family forever.
“When Kim Jong Un first came to power, some of those among Pyongyang’s political and military elite were viewed as a threat to his rule,” Ishimaru says. “As such, the clauses of the Ten Great Principles were activated, resulting in a wave of deadly purges.”
Remember the uncle and the half-brother Li’l Kim had killed.
Although Pyongyang watchers abroad including myself have toyed with the notion that Kim Jong Il’s younger half brother and long-ago rival for power Kim Pyong Il, a retired diplomat who recently returned to Pyongyang (and by at least one report is under house arrest), might become Kim Jong Un’s successor, Ishimaru says no. The maternal line is different and Pyong Il’s lineage is considered, therefore, “impure.” Purity is all in Korean culture.
Kim Jong Un’s eldest son, says Ishimaru, “is likely to be about 10 years-old. Therefore, it will take at least another decade for the child to be old enough to begin the succession process. But, should Kim Jong Un die or be unable to serve in office before then, it is his younger sister and second-in-command Kim Yo Jong who will manage the crisis and ensure the continued rule of the ‘pure Paektu bloodline.’”
You don’t believe it? Ishimaru in another article offers the linguistic analysis.
“On June 5 … Kim Yo Jong harshly criticized North Korean defector groups in South Korea for sending defamatory leaflets to the North in balloons, condemning the groups’ members as ‘garbage’ and ‘mongrel dogs.’
“This is the third time a statement has been released by the regime through Kim Yo Jong. Earlier this year, on March 3, she released a scathing criticism of the South Korean presidential office for its protest of North Korea’s missile test launch. A short while later, on March 22, she released a second statement, this time praising President Trump for sending a personal letter of gratitude to her brother, Kim Jong Un.
“Kim Yo Jong’s latest statement, however, is far different from those she released in March. With her latest remarks delivered at the level of a ruling figure, Kim Yo Jong is being introduced as a top leader.
“What is unusual is that the regime’s department for managing relations with South Korea, the United Front Department, issued a follow-up statement the next day, declaring that the people must take Kim Yo Jong’s words to heart and discuss the contents. The statement also stated that Kim Yo Jong is officially ‘overseeing relations with the South.’”
Ishimaru found it “noteworthy that the statement referred to ‘orders’ given by Kim Yo Jong. In North Korea, it is only the supreme leader who can give such ‘orders.’ (Though such an expression is also used to refer to orders received through the central party.)
“Article 4-7 of the Ten Great Principles reads as follows (for your information, the word ‘party’ refers to Kim Jong Un): ‘The Party’s policies and directives must be strictly distinguished from those of individual officials…. There should be no systematic delivery or collective discussion of individual officials’ remarks, nor should terms such as conclusion or command be used.’ The article stipulates that the terms command and delivery of commands can only be used in reference to the Party, meaning Kim Jong Un.
“However, on June 8, North Korean state media gave Kim Yo Jong special treatment by using such terms to describe her statement. In addition, following her remarks, young people and workers across the country were mobilized to attend protest rallies condemning North Korean defectors. At these rallies, Kim Yo Jong’s statement was recited to the gathered crowds.
“In other words, the ‘delivery of commands’ – a right reserved solely for the supreme leader – was extended to Kim Yo Jong. It can therefore be said that an era of brother-sister rule, with Kim Yo Jong as a quasi-supreme leader, has officially begun.”
Daily NK story continued
Back to the article that prompted my rant: Daily NK noted that Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency had reported July 3 “that the 14th Politburo Plenary Meeting of the 7th Central Committee was held at Central Committee headquarters on July 2. Photographs of the meeting showed Kim [Yo Jong] sitting second from the right in the front row, looking towards the podium.”
The photo published by Daily NK showed the nameplates facing away from the camera lens and thus unreadable, but Daily NK quoted its source as saying that her nameplate read, “Comrade Kim Yo Jong, Member of the Central Committee’s Politburo.”
“Based on the source’s report, Kim became a full member of the politburo less than three months after an April 11 politburo meeting where she ‘returned’ to her position as an alternate member of the decision-making body. If the source’s information is correct, she would be only the second woman in North Korea to have become a full member of the Politburo,” after Aunt Kim Kyung Hui.
There is no mention in the article of the 30-member Politburo’s Presidium, which includes the supreme leader, currently Kim Jong Un, and up to four other members. It appears there may be two vacancies on the Presidium. If and when Kim Yo Jong ends up filling one of those positions it will become more difficult still for skeptics to minimize the extent of her rise.
Bradley K. Martin is the author of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty.