South Korea's then-president Moon Jae-shaking hands with Kim Yo Jong, the sister and close adviser to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, at the north side of the truce village of Panmunjom in the Demilitarized Zone on May 26, 2018. Photo: AFP / The Blue House

The Kim family regime in North Korea plays its cards extremely close to its chest, but Pyongyangologists don’t complain. After all, if we don’t know what’s going on, we can always play an entertaining guessing game.

Asia Times published a piece Tuesday quoting South Korea’s Yonhap News Agency as pushing an unnamed source’s theory that a super-high position in the ruling Workers’ Party – newly referred to in the party’s rulebook – had been created for Kim Jong Un’s enforcer, Jo Yong Won.

Since then the same news agency has come out with another story, quoting a different (and this time named) source. The source argued that the party’s No 2 job probably is vacant for the time being, but seems tailored for a member of the ruling family – most likely Kim Jong-un’s sister Yo Jong.

She could step forward as Kim’s duly-empowered “representative” in case Kim himself should be indisposed.

“In case of an emergency, including those involving leader Kim’s health, Kim Yo-jong is likely to take up this deputy position and act temporarily as the successor until power is handed over to Kim Jong-un’s son,” Yonhap quoted former Unification Minister Lee Jong-seok as having told reporters.

In a photo taken on June 18, 2020, North Korean refugee Ji Gwang-sik sits in his barbershop as an image of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong is on a television news channel, on the western island of Gyodong. Photo: AFP / Ed Jones

That “temporarily” could be a while, since Kim’s son Ju Ae is only eight. But the Kim regime is a family dynasty, widely expected to remain such.

Lee’s pick is supported in a new article in the progressive, pro-reunification daily newspaper Hankyoreh. The author writes that the title of the new position, “Workers’ Party first secretary,” is a title that Kim himself held early in his tenure, after his father and predecessor Kim Jong Il died.

First secretary is an exalted title in the North Korean system, where non-royals having high positions would go by “first vice” secretary or director or whatever, the writer, Le Je-hun, explained.

“The only examples of ‘first’ titles that did not also include the word ‘vice’ were both given to Kim Jong-un as third-generation successor,” Le wrote: “’first secretary’ of the WPK and ‘first chairman of the CMC'” – the Central Military Commission. 

Talk about tealeaf reading!

“We cannot completely rule out the possibility of Jo Yong Won,” Le is quoted as adding, “but the deputy post appears to be aimed more at securing regime stability for the successor” – and Jo’s bloodline doesn’t appear to qualify him for that role.

There’s no consensus yet, and some playing the guessing game are still arguing that whoever is named to the new post need not be of the dynastic bloodline but could be a non-royal like Jo – who has made his mark as Kim’s tiger disciplinarian.

The tiger disciplinarian Jo Yong Won (circled-left) with Kim Jong Un on one of the leader’s on-the-spot guidance tours. Photo: Facebook

That would leave the issue open to a cynical interpretation, which is what another daily paper, the conservative Chosun Ilbo, offered with a short commentary by Kim Myong-song.

“The North Korean regime has created the new post of a second-in-command to the supreme leader, presumably so the incumbent can take the flak for Kim Jong-un’s failings,” wrote Kim Myong-song. (Apparently this Kim is no relation to the North Korean rulers; some 20% of all Koreans bear the same family name.)

A prominent think tank expert has also chimed in, saying the creation of the new position is part of a wider but under-reported trend within North Korea’s power structure.

“I don’t think it is about power-sharing, it is about a delegation of decision-making authority to the first secretary,” Moon Chung-in, who heads South Korea’s Sejong Institute, told reporters Thursday afternoon. “I would say it is part of the process of the normalization of governance in North Korea.”

This “normalization” has been a top-down process, Moon said.

“Kim Jong Un has been working damned hard to normalize North Korea from an institutional point of view,” Moon, who has also advised all three of the South Korean presidents who have summited with North Korean leaders, said. “There have been an array of legal and institutional changes.”