Authors: Jinghui Lao, Kathyrn Chong Region Head: Kathyrn Chong
Editor: Praharsh Mehrotra
Illustration by Jasmine
While the world was preoccupied with the Covid-19 pandemic, reports of Kim Jong Un’s disappearance from the public eye for over 20 days arose. More significant was his disappearance from the most important event in North Korea, his grandfather, Kim Il-Sung’s birth anniversary in April (McCausland, 2020). This sparked concerns regarding his health and his future as the Supreme leader of North Korea. Media reports of Kim Yo Jong, his sister allegedly took over state duties and was likely put in charge of the Organisation and Guidance Department (OGD) of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party (WPK), leading to rumors that she could be Kim Jong Un’s successor (Berlinger and Seo, 2020). This article will discuss Kim Yo Jung’s role in the politburo, her ideologies, and the future of North Korean society.
Kim Yo Jong and her role in the WPK
The younger sister of the current North Korean Supreme leader Kim Jong Un and the only one considered a close and powerful ally amongst his siblings. Kim Yo Jong previously served in the party’s propaganda department in 2014 which sought to maintain her brother’s image, and was elevated to an alternative member of the politburo in 2017 (BBC News, 2020). However, her first appearance in the international public’s eye was in 2018, when she became the Kim dynasty’s first member to visit South Korea and as a delegate for the PyeongChangWinter Olympics where the two Koreas competed together (BBC News, 2020). From December 2019, she was elevated to the First Vice-department director of the Party’s Central Committee, in-charge of operations against South Korea (Oh, 2020). Now, she manages her brother’s public appearances, acts as his political advisor and was also his envoy during diplomatic meetings with world leaders like America’s President Trump and China’s President Xi (Oh, 2020).
Enshrined in principle number ten of North Korea’s Ten Principles for the Establishment of the One-Ideology System (Green, 2013), the hereditary nature of leadership by the Kim family is critical to the country’s internal stability. North Korea has been heavily reliant on power succession within the Kim family since the Korean War (McCausland, 2020; Oh, 2020). Given her close relationship with her brother and increasingly senior role in the politburo, it is no wonder rumours of her being Kim’s next successor surfaced both times when he disappeared from public’s view in 2014 (BBC News, 2020) and April 2020.
Kim Yo Jong and her ideology
Kim Yo Jong’s ideologies align with that of the ruling WPK. The key ideology of the WPK is ‘juche’ (self-reliance), the idea that North Korea has to remain self-reliant, separate from the world, depend solely on its own capabilities and the guidance of a near god-like leader (Beauchamp, 2018). This ideology is reflected through her actions of thanking President Trump for offering foreign aid against Covid-19, but rejecting his offer in March 2020 (Lee, 2020).
She adopts a tough and critical stance regarding foreign policy, similar to her brother’s. In June 2020, she threatened to send military troops into the demilitarized zone at the inter-Korean border, in response to South Korean activists sending anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the border (BBC News, 2020). She also warned that the “useless” inter-Korean liaison office would be “completely collapsed” (Onchi, 2020), just days before the government blew up the office, the main symbol of inter-Korean reconciliation. This escalated tensions between the two Koreas, bringing them further from possibilities of reunification. Her words, translated into action in a matter of days, proves her influence in North Korea, and her resolve in taking harsh actions towards the South.
Reasons for her tough stance towards foreign policy could be her attempt to resemble Kim Jong Un’s ruling strategy. Since her brother became Supreme leader in his twenties in 2011, he executed key political persons such as his uncle and army general, Jang Song-thaek and replaced personnel in the party, which some believe were his attempts to enforce an iron grip over North Korea’s political sphere by demonstrating that he is capable of being and should be treated seriously as the Supreme leader despite his youth (Lankov, 2015). Such tactics of psychological manipulation and extreme threats are often used by Pyongyang leaders for tactical gain (Lee, 2020). By demonstrating her tough stance towards the South, Kim Yo Jong could be following her brother’s footsteps to gain respect and acknowledgement towards her leadership from the other party members, especially since she is not only young, but also a female serving in the patriarchal society. It is also highly likely that she would continue ruling with similar policies to Kim Jong Un if she were to succeed his Supreme leader role, being her brother’s important advisor on propaganda and diplomatic relations (EIU, 2020).
Likelihood of Kim Yo Jong being the next North Korean leader?
As for now, it is unlikely that Kim Yo Jong has been appointed to be Kim Jong Un’s successor.
Principle number three of North Korea’s Ten Principles for the Establishment of the One-Ideology System prevents the appointment of a number-two (second-in-power) in North Korean politics (Green, 2013). To ensure her survival, it is unwise for Kim Yo Jong to stand out as a number-two, and she should instead adhere to her brother, Kim Jong-un’s orders. Her future political influence also depends on her brother’s appointments. If he appoints her to core departments like OGD, her political influence can grow. However, if he restricts her to operations against South Korea and foreign affairs, her political powers will be limited (Oh, 2020).
Experts believe that North Korean state media has pictured Kim Yo Jong’s rising profile to raise speculations that she is being groomed to be his brother’s successor, but they are reluctant to link her rising profile to possibilities of Kim Jong Un’s demise as the Supreme leader (Berlinger and Seo, 2020). Kim Jong Un will continue his rule in 2020-21, regardless of speculations of his deteriorating health and Kim Yo Jong’s increasingly important political status could be Kim Jong Un’s way of consolidating the Kim family’s control over the regime (EIU, 2020).
Figure 1: Graph of Percentage of Women in North Korea’s Parliament from 1997 to 2019
The patriarchal North Korean system makes it difficult for a woman to come into power. As of 2019, the female representation in North Korea’s parliament is 17.61% (Figure 1), significantly less than the global average of 22.85% (TheGlobalEconomy.com, 2019).
The entrenchment of the gender divide in North Korea’s society also makes it difficult for Kim Yo Jong to be accepted as Supreme leader. In North Korea, men face no repercussion when they commit acts of domestic violence or sexual harassment towards women and women often call men in the household ‘guard dogs’, implying them as “tough figureheads who stay at home making no particular contribution” (Lim, 2018). As men view women as less than equals, it would be unsurprising that the society is not ready to accept a female leader.
The future of North Korea
Being a member of the Kim family, the close sibling of the current Supreme leader and having increasingly important political appointments, Kim Yo Jong is speculated to be Kim Jong-un’s next successor and would likely rule with the state’s traditional juche ideology and ensure policy continuity from her brother’s rule. However, given Kim Jong Un’s inability to appoint a number-two, his current continuity of rule and the difficulty to gain acceptance as a female leader in the highly-patriarchal North Korean society, Kim Yo Jong is unlikely to succeed Kim Jong-un’s rule, at least in the meantime.
Going forward, Kim Jong Un would likely pass the position of Supreme leader down to his son in the future (Oh, 2020), given the heavy reliance of North Korea’s internal stability on the power succession by a member of the ruling Kim family and the highly-patriarchal societal nature.
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