A character that we knew nothing about a few years ago is quickly becoming the most powerful woman in the world – and potentially very dangerous.
Not so long ago, even the most staunch observers of North Korean politics knew little or nothing about Kim Yo-jong.
Dictator Kim Jong-un’s sister and youngest child of the late Supreme Leader of the Hermit Nation, Kim Jong-il, had spent her life in the shadows until she appeared at her father’s funeral in 2011 .
Less than a decade later, his triumph on the world stage at the Winter Olympics in South Korea demonstrated his meteoric rise through the often brutal ranks of Pyongyang’s leadership.
Recent major developments indicate that she has developed this power and that she is the likely heir to the North Korean rulers, whether her brother likes it or not.
A ruthless ambition takes shape
In mid-2020, as the world gripped the worsening Covid-19 pandemic, Kim Yo-jong blew up a building.
The Korean liaison office on the north side of the demilitarization zone – a neutral strip between the two countries – has been razed by the military at its request.
“I think it is high time to break with the South Korean authorities,” she said a few days earlier, saying she had ordered the building to be “completely collapsed”.
The building was empty of people, but Kim’s instant destruction of such a symbolically important site took the South by surprise, given the optimism harnessed less than two years earlier.
In 2018, she led a delegation to the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, becoming the first figure in her family’s political dynasty to visit the South in an official capacity.
Ms Kim met South Korean President Moon Jae-in and posed for photos with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and US Vice President Mike Pence.
At home, the vision of her successful visit has dominated state-controlled media and pundits have declared it a sign of her leadership ambition.
Sojin Lim is a senior lecturer in Korean studies and deputy director of the International Institute of Korean Studies at the University of Central Lancashire and said the “first sister” has enjoyed continuous ascent.
A new sign of this emerged last week, after Mr. Moon addressed the United Nations General Assembly and called for an end to the war on the Korean Peninsula. It is a call for peace that he has made numerous times and, as usual, it has drawn a bitter rebuff from North Korean officials.
But in contrast, just a day later, Kim Yo-jong said the idea of peace is “admirable” – albeit under a number of conditions.
“What must be abandoned are double-dealing attitudes, illogical prejudices, bad habits and the hostile position of justifying their own actions while questioning our just exercise of the right to self-defense,” Ms. Kim.
This kind of rhetoric, especially one of such importance, would normally come from his brother, Dr Lim wrote in an article for The conversation.
“Another interesting episode may shed light on the power relationship between her and her brother,” she said.
“In March 2020, Kim Yo-jong issued his first official statement, attacking the South Korean presidential office, the so-called Blue House, for calling on the North to stop live-fire exercises. She called the management “just a child” and “a burnt child fearing fire.”
“Two days later, Kim Jong-un sent a message of condolence following the Covid-19 epidemic in the South. It “underscored his steadfast friendship and trust in President Moon and said he would continue to quietly send his best wishes to President Moon to overcome.”
“The message puzzled Korean observers as to whether the siblings were at loggerheads over North-South relations or whether it was a display of ‘good cop-bad cop’ diplomacy.”
A fierce battle for power
Speculation about Kim Jong-un’s health escalated even more recently when the frontman made a public appearance with a noticeably slimmer figure.
Years of rumors of illness constantly followed the observation of strange bruises on her body, as well as poorly concealed bandages.
Leonid Petroc, an expert on Korean studies at the Australian National University, said that if anything happens to Mr Kim, a “fierce power struggle is inevitable.”
“A collective leadership made up of senior military and party alumni is likely to step in and rule the country,” Dr Petroc told news.com.au.
“Kim Yo-jong might be too cruel and unpredictable for North Korean elites to tolerate. They have lived in fear for quite a long time and will not need another bully with new rules of survival.
The party and the military could look to a “softer, weaker” family member to lead, to give them legitimacy to rule North Korea, he said.
But the country is running out of potential candidates, with many possible male heirs executed or murdered.
“Including Kim Jong-nam, the half-brother of Kim Jong-un who was murdered with the nerve agent VX at the Kuala Lumpur airport in Malaysia in 2017,” Dr Lim said.
“And his uncle, Jang Song-thaek, who was reportedly executed by a firing squad in 2013 after being accused of being a counterrevolutionary.
A heir apparent?
Dr Lim said securing North Korea’s leadership seemed to depend on taking control of the “trinity of power of the military, party and people.”
Kim Yo-jong solidified as a powerhouse in foreign relations.
“Following what was reported as her diplomatic triumph at the Winter Olympics, her profile rose as she met Chinese President Xi Jinping and attended the three face-to-face meetings between her brother and the US President Donald Trump, ”remarked Dr Lim.
“She was brought up twice at the politburo, in 2017 to 2019 and from 2020 to 2021.
“Besides, she is also the head of the Propaganda and Agitation Department, in which she strengthened the cult of personality surrounding her brother and made regular statements on North Korean foreign relations.
“She is believed to be married to Choe Song, the youngest son of Korean Workers’ Party secretary Choe Ryong Hae, which gives her another source of political power.”
These factors give him strong recognition among the North Korean people, as well as influence within the party.
“But she has yet to be appointed to a post in the National Defense Commission,” Dr Lim said, noting that her father and brother had both become leading figures in the NDC, which controls the army.
“If that happens soon, it could be a sign that North Korea is gearing up for its first female leader. “
And that would make her one of the most powerful women in the world, and one of the most dangerous, leading an unstable regime with dozens of nuclear warheads.