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Demoted? Pushed aside? Fate of North Korean leader’s powerful sister is unclear

Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un
Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, arrives for the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
(Patrick Semansky / Pool photo)

What has happened to Kim Yo Jong, the influential sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un?

That’s a question being asked by many who watch the insular, nuclear-armed country after her name failed to appear in its new Politburo lineup in recent days.

Some say Kim Jong Un may have demoted his sister — considered by many to be North Korea’s second-most powerful official — over general policy failures. Others believe Kim could be worried about her rapid rise and increasingly high profile as he tries to bolster his domestic authority in the face of growing economic challenges.

Rumors that have cast Kim Yo Jong as her brother’s heir apparent could be dangerous for him because they “raise the issue of Kim’s hold on power and health inside North Korea,” said Oh Gyeong-seob, an analyst at Seoul’s Korea Institute for National Unification. This, he said, is why Kim Jong Un is slowing down her political rise.

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The development is a surprise because Kim Yo Jong, who became an alternate member of the Politburo last year, was widely expected to receive full bureau membership during a congress of the ruling Workers’ Party that ended Tuesday. Politburo membership is viewed as crucial for high-level officials hoping to thrive in Kim Jong Un’s government because he has made key decisions at bureau meetings, including the 2013 move to execute his powerful uncle Jang Song Taek and the purge of military chief Ri Yong Ho in 2012.

When the eight-day congress, the first of its kind since 2016, opened last week, Kim Yo Jong, who is thought to be about 32, sat on the leadership dais, standing out among the mostly older, overwhelmingly male party cadres. But when the congress announced a list of 30 alternate and full members of the Politburo on Monday, including the 37-year-old Kim Jong Un, her name wasn’t on there.

President Trump charted a whipsaw course in relations with North Korea, going from alarming nuclear tests and brash threats to friendly summits with Kim Jong Un. President-elect Biden has not ruled out meeting with Kim but has signaled he’d revert to a more patient, measured approach.

Kim Yo Jong hasn’t been purged or forced to quit politics, a fate that some officials have met under her brother, and she still retains her membership of the party’s Central Committee, also a high-level body. But when she released a statement criticizing South Korea on Wednesday, North Korean state media identified her as a “vice department director” of the party, a lower rank than her previous title of “first vice department director.”

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Kim Jong Un is urging his 25 million people to rally behind his leadership to overcome what he has called his nation’s “worst-ever” difficulties. North Korea has faced coronavirus-related economic shocks, a spate of natural disasters last summer and persistent U.S.-led sanctions over its pursuit of nuclear weapons. During the congress, Kim vowed to expand his nuclear arsenal and build a stronger, self-reliant economy.

“The congress’ purpose is to solidify Kim Jong Un’s leadership. If Kim Yo Jong had become a full Politburo member, all eyes would have been on her ... and Kim Jong Un likely felt that as a burden,” said Ko Young-hwan, a former deputy head of the Institute for National Security Strategy, a think tank run by South Korea’s spy agency. Ko was speaking on a TV news program Monday.

Previously little known to outsiders, Kim Yo Jong has soared politically since her brother inherited power after their father, Kim Jong Il, died in late 2011.

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The current Kims are the third generation of their family to rule North Korea, and their leadership is based on a personality cult established after their grandfather Kim Il Sung founded the country in 1948. Their mythical “paektu” bloodline, named after North Korea’s most sacred mountain, allows only direct family members to rule the country.

Kim Yo Jong rose to international prominence after her brother’s high-stakes nuclear diplomacy with President Trump and other world leaders in 2018 and 2019. In those meetings, her proximity to her brother sparked speculation that she was serving as his chief of staff.

In South Korea, she built an image as “a peace messenger” after she attended the opening ceremony of the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, becoming the first member of the North’s ruling family to visit the South since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.

Last year, she abruptly changed course by launching harsh diatribes against South Korea and putting pressure on the U.S. to make concessions amid deadlocked nuclear diplomacy. North Korea’s state media said she was in charge of relations with South Korea, and outside experts speculated that she might be handing U.S. affairs as well.

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Lawmakers in Seoul say that a senior North Korean diplomat who vanished in Italy in 2018 is living in South Korea under government protection.

In her statement Wednesday, she slammed South Korea for provoking the North with its announcement that it had detected intelligence that North Korea held a military parade or a rehearsal for such a parade this week.

When unconfirmed rumors about Kim Jong Un’s health spread last year, some observers said Kim Yo Jong was next in line to rule North Korea if her brother became incapacitated. South Korea’s spy agency said later that she was essentially the North’s No. 2 leader but hadn’t been anointed as her brother’s heir.

“Kim Jong Un likely held his sister responsible for worsened [external] ties, as she had no achievements in relations with the U.S. and South Korea,” said Kim Yeol Soo, an analyst with the Korea Institute for Military Affairs in South Korea.

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Whatever the reason for her apparent loss of the Politburo job, many experts say her political clout likely remains unchanged thanks to her direct link to the paektu bloodline. There is also a feeling that Kim Jong Un could eventually give her another high-profile job.

Oh, the analyst, said Kim Yo Jong is likely the second-most powerful woman in North Korean history after Kim Song Ae, the late second wife of Kim Il Sung.

“Kim Yo Jong can meet and talk to Kim Jong Un freely anytime ... so we can’t help saying that she has a tremendous influence,” Oh said. “As she gets older, her roles will be bigger.”

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But, he added, her rise could end if she covets more power. “She has to be careful about that,” he said.


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