In early 2018, a surprise new adjective started to circulate in discussions among the usually staid community of North Korea watchers.
The adjective was “hot.” More surprisingly, it was applied to a member of the ruling Kim Dynasty: Kim Yo Jong, the 20-something younger sister of national leader Kim Jong Un.
In a realm where the power players tend to be unsmiling, ancient males with a penchant for survival, the slim, photogenic Kim was a wholly different beast: young, female and empowered, with the sacred “Mount Paektu blood” running through her veins.
In 2018, making the first visit to South Korea by any member of North Korea’s ruling Kim Dynasty, she met with President Moon Jae-in and attended the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in South Korea’s Pyeongchang.
South Korean media were bowled over as Kim charmed her way through the news cycle.
This breath of fresh air would continue to play a high-visibility diplomatic role as an apparent aide and secretary at her brother’s side in summits with Moon and US President Donald Trump. In recent months, defying both her age and gender, she has surged up the ranks of the party.
But there was a temporary blip. She gained, then lost, a seat on the powerful Political Bureau of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party in the wake of the failed February 2019 summit with Trump.
After her re-emergence this year, the erstwhile peace envoy took on a more hawkish demeanor. This past summer, she penned hawkish broadsides against Seoul and Washington.
In June she ordered the explosive demolition of the inter-Korean Liaison Office just north of the DMZ, before her brother cooled tensions with an order for the military to stand down.
Most recently, South Korean intelligence suggested she may be heading what some North Korea watchers have called the regime’s most powerful organization, save the palace of the supreme leader himself.
After concerns over the health of the overweight Kim Jong Un surfaced in April, his sister won renewed attention as Pyongyangologists speculated she was the real “number-two” player in what is widely believed to be a “one-man state.”
Deciphering the real Kim Yo Jong on the basis of her assigned roles in the party – roles which themselves are far from certain – is no easy task. But she is most certainly a central regime player and one with whom whoever is the US president come 2021 will have to reckon.
Swiss school to power politics
Even her date of birth is unknown. Some say September 1987, others say September 1989. From 1996 to 2000 she studied, with her two brothers, in Bern. She is married, though the identity of her husband is unclear. She is believed to have one or two children.
As early as 2002, according to the authoritative website North Korean Leadership Watch, her father Kim Jong Il told visitors that she was interested in entering politics. However, she first came to the attention of North Korea watchers in photographs in 2010-2011, most notably during the elaborate state funeral service for her father in 2011.
Since her elder brother firmly established his rule, her ascent has been meteoric.
She was first mentioned in state media in March 2014. Late that year, she was appointed first deputy director of the party’s Propaganda and Agitation Department, although some reports speculate that she was, in fact, the de facto head.
In that position, she is widely believed to have managed her brother’s personality cult. In visual terms, Kim Jong Un resembles his late grandfather, the massively respected former guerilla leader, Stalin protégé and state founder Kim Il Sung.
This extends from the younger Kim’s hairstyle and tunics to his publicity stunt of riding a white horse up Mount Baekdu, the legendary dormant volcano where his grandfather fought the Japanese and where – in a myth created decades ago by state propaganda – his father is said to have been born on the battlefield.
Whatever this may owe to the ministrations of Kim Yo Jong, in personality terms Kim Jong Un has showcased a far more PR-friendly, connecting-with-the-people, nice-guy figure than his father, Kim Jong Il.
Jong Il, perhaps suffering from stage fright, made only one public address, uttering a single brief phrase in which he praised the army. His son Jong Un, on the other hand, frequently gives speeches, both live and on TV, and is happy to pose for photos with everyone from foreign leaders to units of female soldiers.
Beyond image management, Kim Yo Jong has also played a key role in the North-South Korea relationship.
As her brother’s envoy, she traveled to South Korea during the Winter Olympics year of 2018, a visit that laid the groundwork for his summitry with Moon and Trump. She was prominent in Jong Un’s entourage at the resultant summits.
In October 2017, Kim Yo Jong was made an alternate member of the Politburo. In April 2019, soon after the failed summit with Trump in Hanoi in February, she apparently was dropped from the Politburo. In April 2020, however, she was reinstated.
According to DailyNK, a Seoul-based website that monitors North Korean developments via interviews with citizens using smuggled cellphones, she was, by July this year, not simply reinstated as an alternate, but made one of 16 full, sitting members of the Politburo.
In June 2020, negotiations with South Korea and the US apparently deep-frozen, she penned tough state media editorials and predicted the destruction of the flagship Inter-Liaison Office. Three days after her rhetorical blast, on June 17, the office – on North Korean soil – was blown up.
She ordered the military to stand by. On June 24, however, her brother reversed her position and officially stood the military down.
In August, South Korea’s Defense Minister told the National Assembly that Kim was running the party’s Organization and Guidance Department. The shadowy and powerful OGD monitors the party’s three million members.
This, then, is what media report.
‘Unofficial’ number two
But while Kim’s profile is clearly high, so opaque is North Korean power politics that even experts are not certain of her official job title and portfolio.
“North Korea state media rarely give the party department with the name of a person,” explained Rachel Minyoung Lee, an independent researcher who closely monitors state media.
“The way they provide a title is ‘Comrade Kim Yo Jong, first vice-director of a party department,’ so people struggle to find out what her affiliation is.”
Lee is not confident the party roles Yo Jong has been assigned by overseas media and Pyongyangologists – roles such as agitprop deputy chief or OGD head – are correct.
“She is definitely not head of the OGD, though South Korean intelligence thinks she is,” Lee, who formerly conducted open-source research on North Korea for the US government, told Asia Times. “There are different views, but her party department affiliation is not clear – I am not willing to make a call on it.”
Even so, her Politburo status and visibility in state media are high enough that she is widely considered the regime’s “Number Two” behind her brother’s “Number One.”
“I don’t think it is a rumor, she is already the number two – she is issuing statements in her own name, and this has not happened before,” Go Myong-hyun, a North Korea expert with the Seoul think tank Asan Institute told Asia Times.
“She is very well positioned – though it is not official and I don’t think it will ever be official.”
“She is probably the closest confidant to Kim Jong Un,” added Lee. “On an unofficial level, I think she is number two, and I think North Koreans know she has a special status.”
Given the health rumors that have swirled around her brother, her role may extend to regent in the event of an emergency.
“I think she will be a kingmaker or caretaker if something happens to Kim Jong Un,” said Go. “She is a kind of insurance policy – the regime does not have a better option.”
The young princess
Her status is particularly noteworthy given both her relative youth and her gender in what is, in many ways, an intensely conservative society. “The way she conducts herself, there is this subtle role of being a member of the family and being frustrated by her gender,” said Go.
Women are few and far between at the higher levels. There is only one female alternate member of the current Politburo: Park Myung Sun, who Lee believes took on the role in August this year and who is a light industry specialist.
Historically, while there have been powerful female behind-the-scenes operators in North Korea, only two women have enjoyed high-profile positions in the party, said Andrei Lankov, a Russian North Korea watcher who teaches at Seoul’s Kookmin University.
But both of those were operating in the 1950s and neither achieved as high a status as Kim.
Still, her gender could be an advantage in one sense. “If she was a man, she could have been purged already as a potential competitor,” said Go.
Indeed, it is telling that the middle brother, Kim Jong Chol, plays little to no role in state affairs. Jong Chol failed to win their father’s nod as the successor because – according to a Japanese sushi chef who worked for the Kims, Kenji Fujimoto – Kim Jong Il considered that son effeminate.
For the vast mass of North Korean society, the dynastic bloodline is a critical source of Kim Jo Yong’s legitimacy, Lankov opined.
“It does not matter if she is old or young,” he told Asia Times. “She is a princess of the royal blood.”
As for her youth, she is a part of a trusted young coterie around the leader that includes Kim Jong Un’s wife, Ri Sol-ju, Lankov said, along with “a group of people whose names we probably don’t know.”
“It’s like a Korean family business,” added Go. “Even though she is a Kim, it is a very chauvinistic society, and this is the first time that a Kim woman had a very high profile in the regime.”
She appears qualified.
While some sources state that Kim majored in computer science at the elite Kim Il Sung University, and others that she attended a university in Western Europe, Lee said she had no information on the first sister’s tertiary education.
However, she considers Kim “competent and clever … If you read her press statements they are different from those written by other officials.”
From dove to hawk
Another matter all experts agree upon, besides her lofty status, is her role in regime diplomacy.
She seems to have a role in dealing with South Korea as seen when she was leading an anti-South Korea campaign this June, said Lee. “And judging by press statements targeting the US, she seems to have a role in that as well. It is pretty clear she has a broad role in the party and that makes it difficult to assess what department she is in.”
Her party department does not seem to be foreign affairs. Anyway, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is part of not the party but the government, which is considerably lower in the Pyongyang pecking order.
“North Korea’s Foreign Ministry is not that important, it does not set foreign policy,” said Lankov. “She has studied overseas, she has a good knowledge of the world and maybe some command of foreign languages, so it is only logical she has been appointed to deal with foreign policy.”
She was very much the diplomat in South Korea in 2018, and at summit-side thereafter. So how is her hawkish new 2020 stance – and her brother’s reversal of her tough policy toward South Korea – to be understood?
Lankov suggests a game of smoke and mirrors.
“It is highly unlikely there was disagreement. It was most likely a good cop-bad cop policy. Kim Jong Un wants a good image in South Korea and the United States,” he said.
And the sister’s shift towards hawkishness? “What her face will be in a couple of years, I don’t know,” said Lankov. “I would not make much of softness or harshness. At the end of the day, she is a politician doing what she is supposed to do.”
“That campaign back in June was carefully calibrated, I think they had it all planned out and had given certain people certain roles,” the analyst said.
“She took on that role of the bad cop because she is an authoritative figure who carries a lot of weight and they intended for the outside world, especially South Korea, to see this coming from Kim Yo Jong.”
Her apparent removal from, and then reinstatement to, the Politburo mystifies many.
“Frankly, I don’t know,” said Lankov.
“It remains a mystery to me,” was Lee’s take.
However, Lee offered some guesses. “I think it had something to do with the Hanoi summit,” she said. “She was involved in protocol there at the time and may have been involved in other things, so given the timing, it had to do with the Hanoi summit.”
Given that Kim Jong Un had invested his own credibility so heavily in the summit, “someone else had to pay the price,” said Go. “But she was not the only one to pay a penalty. The lead negotiator was purged – rumor has it that he ended up in a political prison camp, though I doubt that.”
Her role as a fall girl for her brother may explain the badass new persona she adopted this summer. That could have been crafted to upgrade her bona fides in the eyes of a powerful stakeholder in North Korean society.
“The whole blowing up of the office was a way to make Yo Jong look tough,” said Go. “It was a way for her to create an image of someone who can lead the country and gain the trust of the North Korean military.”
Such trust is critical as she clearly has been chosen to play major, if officially undefined, political roles. “She is a part of the inner circle, she is very active and probably very ambitious,” said Lankov.
Safe role as ‘Number Two?’
Experts rate her highly in terms of intelligence and personal presentation. “I think she is very smart and I think she is more disciplined that Kim Jong Un,” said Go. “And as she was in charge of his image-making, she knows how to handle her own image.”
And as a “royal family” member, she is likely more empowered than other state officials, so may provide a reliable weathervane for outside observers to follow.
“Internationally, she is a more credible signaler than a replaceable North Korean official, whether serving as a messenger of engagement at the Winter Olympics or as an enforcer of punishment with the destruction of the inter-Korean liaison office,” said Leif-Eric Easley, an associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.
Given her bloodline, education and closeness to her brother, Lankov predicts “she has a great future.”
But even for such a high-profile figure, risk hovers.
While her brother is said to be a graduate of the Kim Il Sung Military Academy and has the rank of “marshal,” she has no background in uniform. “The hurdle will be how to gain the trust of the military,” said Go. “It is probably the most conservative group in North Korean society.”
Another danger for both her and her children is the peril implicit in Korean monarchies.
Pre-modern royal dynasties on the peninsula were notable for often-lethal familial infighting. South Korea’s current “royal families” – which head the country’s giant business conglomerates – are notorious for intra-family feuding.
And dynastic Pyongyang is deadly. Kim Jong Un had his uncle, long-time regime power player Jang Song-thaek, executed in 2013 and, by all indications, had his older half-brother Kim Jong Nam assassinated in 2017.
This suggests that Kim Yo Jong needs to rein in any personal ambitions she may have for herself and her children, and be seen to maintain her position in her brother’s corner as a trusted go-to.
“North Korea is an absolute monarchy,” warned Lankov. “Everyone’s fate is decided by the great man.”