Kim Yo-jong’s heat level: New face of North Korea poses a hot death knell détente on the Korean Peninsula

  • + The explosion of the Inter Korean Liaison Office proves Kim Yo-jong’s power potential.
  • + The recent disappearance of Kim Jong-un has given her full global attention. 
  • + Kim Yo-jong has become the most likely successor in the Kim dynasty.
Source: The New Yorker 

Why is Kim Yo-jong’s heat level hot?

Answer: Threats to destroy the Inter Korean Liaison Office finally occurred. 

Tensions between North and South Korea have been escalating throughout the end of May and June. However, the turning point came on the 16th of June 2020, when North Korea blew up what little was left of a two-year period of inter-Korean détente. At 3 pm that day, an explosion occurred in the North Korean border city of Kaesong, destroying the liaison office, which since 2018 had been operating as a de facto embassy between the two Koreas. The pretext for the demolition was triggered by the constant threat of hostile acts perceived by the North from the South. Human rights activists in South Korea used balloons and drones to send anti-North propaganda leaflets across the border. Defectors or “human scum” as they are called in North Korea, have also sent over chocolate biscuits, to remind northerners how much richer the capitalist, democratic South is, and flash drivers full of Wikipedia pages. For the Kim dynasty, this was enough. But it wasn’t Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s leader, who decided to put an end to this, but rather his younger sister Kim Yo-jong, who was the one threatening to demolish the office until she eventually succeeded. 

But who is this new face who has suddenly become the spotlight of North Korea? Well, she is one of the several children of the North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. She is the younger sister of Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un and the only one of his siblings who is considered a potential ally. She was born and raised in Pyongyang, capital of the country, though she spent about four years of an elementary school in Switzerland, according to the website North Korea Leadership Watch. Her main duty since 2014 has been to protect her brother’s image. As years went by and she became closer to her brother’s duties, she began to gain more responsibilities in the political apparatus. Most importantly, she became the first member of the Kim dynasty to visit South Korea since the Korean war (1950-53), when she attended the 2018 Winter Olympics. In fact, she was spotted with her brother at the summit in Vietnam with President Donald Trump. As well as accompanying his brother to meet South Korean President Moon Jae-in and China’s Xi Jinping. Hence, becoming the image of North Korea not only domestically but also internationally. 

In her official capacity, she has leverage on many different branches. Firstly, she is the Vice Director of the Workers Party of Korea Propaganda and Agitation Department, which is mainly responsible for censorship in the country. Secondly, since late 2019, she is head of the Department of Organisation and Guidance, basically, where the main decisions related to the party, the military and the bureaucracy are made. And on top of that, she also runs the United Front Department, which is in charge of South Korea policy. All in all, she is his brother’s right hand. However, a recent event has boosted her popularity. 

Who is changing Kim Yo-jong’s temperature? 

Answer: The recent absence of Kim Jong-un from the public media. 

Kim Yo-jong has become North Korea’s apparent heir, after her brother was not seen for 19 days since his last appearance on the country’s state media on April 12th. Rumours about his health and speculation about who might succeed him became the focus of global attention. The turning point and the materialisation of the most pessimistic outlook of the situation for Kim Jong-un, occurred when he failed to appear at a national celebration. On April 15th the Supreme Leader was absent in the ceremony at the mausoleum for Kim Il-sung, who was his grandfather and founding father of the country. 

In light of this absence, it is important to note that this event is not a complete novelty. Since he acquired power in 2014 until today, most of his public appearances have been after gaps of around 15 days.  Nevertheless, this year, in particular, he has been absent for longer than the former initial 19 days aforementioned. Kim Jong-un had not been seen for 21 days between January 26th and February 16th, in addition to the 19 days between March 22nd and April 10th. As a result, all types of speculation started to hit the media. Whether it was due to his health, self-quarantine to shield himself from COVID-19 or a test on his own confidence circle to check if there were any traitors, the most prompting rumours looked into the direction of who was going to succeed him.

What is driving Kim Yo-jong?

Answer:  Potential candidate in the succession line of the Kim dynasty. 

It is here when Kim Yo-jong entered the field. The propaganda campaign that preceded the demolition of the liaison office was spearheaded solely by her. She depicted the defectors as: “rubbish like mongrel dogs” who had the temerity to “fault our supreme leadership”. This strong and robust manner displayed by the sister’s leader is positioning her with hardline credentials and fully apt to take charge of this dynasty. 

Right now, Kim’s family dynasty is more vulnerable than ever. Kim Jong-un does not have a son that could take over when he reaches an old age nor he has a brother with a possibility to succeed him, as after his father’s death he was not considered leadership material. Succession at the moment would be a bit tumultuous as the only possibilities would be Kim Pyong Il, who is Kim Jong-un’s uncle, his sister’s father-in-law, Kim Jong Chul or his sister herself, Kim Yo-jong. 

North Korea’s hereditary dynasty does not partake in any type of segregation between genders regarding who should be the only gender entitled to rule the country. Instead, the only prerequisite is for the successor to be from the Kim bloodline. The “Paektu bloodline” as they call it, claims to be divine therefore, it is essential for the next leader to be born with it in order to be legitimate. This means that Kim Yo-jong has no problem in being the next one in line for power, and she knows it very well. As such, she is following the same path as his brother did, focusing on her own image whilst at the same time magnifying it, to avoid being compared with him or that of his grandfather Kim Il-sung.

What does this mean for you? 

Answer: A possible period of truce. 

Subsequently, the Kim brothers have been described as a duet version of bad cop, worse cop, the latter referring to Kim Yo-jong. So, does the future of North Korea only await an even more radical leader? Well, only time will say though we must not disregard this possibility. What is important is that whilst the media, especially that of North Korea, is dealing with the possible venues for succession, it is serving as a distraction from domestic economic difficulties caused by the country’s strict quarantine protocol that is followed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

On the bright side, if Kim Yo-jong took power, there is a great chance that she would favour policy continuity, limiting risks on outside diplomacy as well as nuclear and missile tests and other military provocations. At the time of succession, the focus will be on consolidating power domestically and warding off any threats in order to bolster the new leader. As a result, in the short term, international diplomacy concerning North Korea would be more relaxed. Though in the long term political tensions with other potential powers could be more threatening than they are today, given the behaviour Kim Jong-un has demonstrated on foreign affairs lately.

Berta Pereda Asencio

Research & Analysis Intern