Kim Yo Jong has become the focus of global attention after her brother Kim Jong Un failed to appear at a national celebration, sparking speculation about the health of North Korea’s supreme leader.
Moon Chung-in, an adviser to the South Korean president, told Fox News on Sunday that he believed Mr Kim was “alive and well”, despite reports suggesting that he was seriously ill. The South Korean presidential office declined to comment on Mr Moon’s remarks.
Still, the episode has served as a stark reminder of the risks of a power struggle in the nuclear-armed pariah state.
“The stakes are enormous given North Korea’s extensive [weapons of mass destruction] arsenal and infrastructure, the sheer size of its military, its pervasive social control apparatus and willingness to be brutal against its own population,” said Jenny Town, deputy director of 38 North, a North Korea-focused, Washington DC think-tank.
Kim Yo Jong, 32, was a favourite of her father, late leader Kim Jong Il, who admired her intelligence. She has been groomed for power since her teens by North Korean propaganda master Kim Ki Nam, according to Michael Madden, a US expert in North Korean leadership.
“This is a girl who’s had a masterclass in North Korean politics,” Mr Madden told the Financial Times. Ms Kim, he pointed out, had regularly attended and convened important meetings and had impressed Xi Jinping when she met the Chinese leader. “There’s nobody else that’s going to come in other than her.”
Ms Kim rose to prominence in 2018 when she was dispatched to Seoul to attend the Winter Olympic Games, becoming the first member of the Kim regime to visit South Korea since the Korean war.
Behind the scenes she is believed to have increasingly important roles within the ruling party while continuing to support her brother, including in his engagements with President Donald Trump.
The state’s propagandists have also enhanced her legitimacy as part of the direct bloodline from Kim Il Sung, the country’s revolutionary founding leader and a godlike figure, analysts said.
When North Korean television last year showed a jowly, red-faced Kim Jong Un atop a white steed on the sacred Mount Paektu, astute North Korean watchers noted the prominence of his sister. She was riding alongside the leader and the leather breast plate, bridle and halter on Ms Kim’s horse were studded with the same shining insignia as her older brother’s mount.
“To your average, everyday North Korean, that is a pretty sure sign that she is a special person, that she is part of the Mount Paektu bloodline,” said Rachel Lee, a former North Korea analyst for the US government.
Bruce Klingner, a former CIA analyst, said that while it had been “widely assumed” that the strict patriarchy of Confucian culture would preclude a woman ruling North Korea, Ms Kim had gained authority in recent years.
Questions of legitimacy
A person in direct contact with North Korean and Chinese officials — speaking on the condition of anonymity — said it was unlikely that Ms Kim would rule alone and that she would probably be part of a group that would take over in the event of her brother’s death.
When Mr Kim took power in 2011, North Korean watchers braced for regime collapse, believing he might lack political authority and dynastic legitimacy after a hurried succession. Similar concerns are being raised about Ms Kim.
“She is the only person with a chance of taking the top billing, but that would only be allowed to happen if she gave everyone else some sense of collective leadership,” the person told the FT.
They added that Ms Kim could serve as the country’s figurehead but that it would likely be “the party” that tried to project leadership in a style akin to China before Mr Xi’s dominant rule.
Under such circumstances, analysts have suggested that Choe Ryong Hae, a senior political figure and longtime ally of Kim Jong Il who has had recent responsibility for the country’s armed forces, could also assume control as a type of regent.
The events have also returned attention to Kim Pyong Il, 65, the younger paternal half-brother of Kim Jong Il. After losing a power struggle with the Dear Leader, the only surviving son of Kim Il Sung spent four decades in ambassadorial roles in Europe before returning to Pyongyang last year.
Thae Yong Ho, a former senior North Korean diplomat and high-profile defector, suggested that despite Kim Pyong Il’s long absence, he loomed as a challenger, favoured by senior officials.
“In their eyes, Yo Jong is just a novice,” Mr Thae said.
Risk of power struggle
Still, questions linger over whether a woman, albeit one with royal blood, could wrest control from Pyongyang’s military and political elite.
Having dispatched his half-brother Kim Jong Nam, who was assassinated in a Malaysian airport in 2017, as well as his uncle Jang Song Thaek, executed in 2013 among scores of high-level purges, there are few other close family members who stand as alternatives to continue the Kim bloodline.
Kim Jong Chol, the leader’s elder brother, is described as effeminate, lacking ambition and more focused on his love for Eric Clapton and guitars than leadership, according to Washington Post journalist Anna Fifield in her biography of Kim Jong Un.
While Mr Klingner said North Korea would take steps to avoid a tumultuous handover, he cautioned that “even an initially successful succession could deteriorate into a power struggle, with fissures among the senior leadership arising over time”.
Duyeon Kim, a Seoul-based expert with the International Crisis Group, a think-tank, did not rule out the potential for a challenge to Kim Yo Jong.
“If [Kim Jong Un] doesn’t have a contingency plan in place or doesn’t leave behind some dying injunction, then we could see a power struggle,” she said.