Kim Yo Jong’s path to power in North Korea becoming clear

Kim Yo Jong’s path to power in North Korea becoming clear

Kim Yo Jong’s path to power in North Korea becoming clear
Kim Yo Jong is aggressively pursuing a line that could lead to a North Korean nuclear test. (Reuters)
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North Korea’s victory over COVID-19 is wrapped up in the country’s politics, as demonstrated by leader Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong. Last week, she made her first formal speech before the Workers’ Party of Korea’s Central Committee, highlighting a new stage for North Korea’s leadership that will have consequences for Pyongyang’s foreign policy. With the Eastern Pacific heating up, Kim stepping forward now is a smart move for the regime.
Kim’s speech, broadcast on national television, included obscenities and threatened the use of germ warfare in retaliation for balloon launches from South Korea that she blamed for spreading COVID-19 in North Korea, making her brother ill. This public admission of her brother’s illness was a first in terms of analyzing North Korean elites. This commentary is quite revealing for its sharpness and admissions of health issues in the inner circle.
Interestingly, the North Korean leader looked upon his sister, analyzing what she was saying, as opposed to looking at the audience’s reaction. This positioning by both family members is telling of Kim Yo Jong’s rising stature, especially on the South Korean file, which is her main focus. She is aggressively pursuing a line that could lead to a North Korean nuclear test. She is likely now the bellwether for a possible seventh test blast. In the current international environment, the likelihood is that a nuclear test is coming sooner rather than later, perhaps by the end of the year.
South Korean reunification groups and other peace activists are sending balloons of friendship over the demilitarized zone dividing the two countries. In addition, the threat of a “retaliation” against South Korea for “making her brother ill” is related to the ongoing heightened tensions between China, Japan, Russia and, of course, South Korea. Under a law enacted while Moon Jae-in was president, peace groups are banned from launching balloons over the North, but authorities have not been enforcing the law. Pyongyang is exploiting this issue.
Kim Yo Jong, who is believed to be aged 34, is clever. She has a reputation for aggressively pushing North Korean propaganda and is among the officials supporting the country’s ambitious 2022 ballistic missile test program, which has stopped momentarily but could resume any moment. That pause in testing is key in terms of her speech. It may be the lull before a diplomatic and testing storm. It is best to be cautious with Pyongyang in the current environment, and extremely firm. Tellingly, Kim is in the same policy circle as Gen. Pak Jong Chon, who is overseeing the development of new weapons for the country.
Her rise within North Korea’s Organization and Guidance Department made her No. 2 and this speech cemented her leadership. It is important to remember that Kim is at her brother’s side at most public appearances, just not some of the recent ceremonies marking the Kim dynasty, highlighting the uniqueness of the family’s dynamics.
Perhaps Kim’s most prominent moment in the spotlight came during the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, where she served as a delegate and sat alongside senior Asian and Western leaders. Her visit to Seoul was laden with significance at that time. For South Koreans, high-up North Korean officials had visited on special occasions in the past, but never before had a member of the North’s ruling family crossed the border.
To be sure, Kim is in a society rigidly controlled by men, where bloodline is more important than gender. She is the youngest child of former leader Kim Jong Il and Ko Yong Hui. Her grandfather was North Korea’s first leader. If, from the North Korean point of view, gender is to play a role, Kim Yo Jong may serve as a powerful regent if anything were to happen to her brother.
Gender division is now playing a role in North Korea. Kim Yo Jong is the country’s potential first female leader. This period of regional volatility is going to be a test of what may become her policy positions if the trajectory of her being made leader comes true.

This period of regional volatility is going to be a test of what may become her policy positions as leader.

Dr. Theodore Karasik

She is building up power, perhaps ahead of assuming key posts and achieving the outcomes her brother seeks in crafting North Korea’s strategic outlook after COVID-19. There are questions about whether her ties to her brother will hurt her durability. Kim Yo Jong’s policy prowess is becoming more straightforward, and in a geographical area that is going to become more significant in the coming months.
One last point: North Korea’s interests are not just limited to East Asia, as Pyongyang has a strong yet quiet presence in other parts of the Global South. Female leadership in Pyongyang could become an important source of inspiration for these audiences.

  • Dr. Theodore Karasik is a senior adviser to Gulf State Analytics in Washington. Twitter: @tkarasik
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