SEOUL—The star of the younger sister of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un has risen so fast and high in the country’s ruling firmament in 2020 as to make her appear as a stand-in for big brother if not his rival for power.
At 32, four years younger than Jong Un, Kim Yo Jong has made her presence known through shockingly tough statements that he had to have endorsed but she clearly wrote and recommended.
Undoubtedly her most famous—and most effective—blast was her denunciation in June of North Korean defectors for firing off balloons from South Korea laden with leaflets criticizing the North Korean regime.
They were “human scum hardly worth their value as human beings,” “little short of wild animals who betrayed their own homeland,” she raged. It was “time to bring their owners to account” and ask “south (sic) Korean authorities if they are ready to take care of the consequences of evil conduct by the rubbish-like mongrel dogs who took no scruple to slander us while faulting the ‘nuclear issue’ in the meanest way at the most untimely time.”
Kim Yo Jong’s colorful rhetoric—more extreme than anything her brother has put out publicly since taking the reins after the death of their father, Kim Jong Il, nine years ago—struck a responsive chord here. South Korea’s national assembly, dominated by the ruling party of President Moon Jae-in, this month made it illegal to fire off not only leaflets but also candy bars and dollar bills and USB devices bringing traces of the good life south of the demilitarized zone to the hunger- and poverty-stricken North.
Moon himself adopted a turn-the-other-cheek policy after North Korean soldiers on June 16, at the behest of Kim Yo Jong, via the army, blew up the joint liaison office in the shuttered Kaesong Industrial Complex just north of the DMZ. The blast, heard for miles around, showed she had meant it when she warned South Koreans to “get themselves ready” for “shutdown” of the office “whose existence only adds to trouble.”
Kim Yo Jong’s harsh criticism was all the more disappointing for Moon considering that only the day before the explosion, on the 20th anniversary of the signing of a joint North-South agreement in Pyongyang between Kim Jong Il and South Korea’s late President Kim Dae Jung, he had called on both sides “to move forward, one step at a time, down the road to national reconciliation, peace, and reunification.”
After Kim Yo Jong called his conciliatory words “a string of shameless and impudent words full of incoherence” and “shameless perfidy,” Moon left it to a spokesman to call her criticism “an insensible act that fundamentally damages the trust” supposedly built up at his four meetings with Kim Jong Un.
The fact that Kim Yo Jong so easily violated that trust means she’s more than just a power behind the throne. As the widely acknowledged boss of the fearsome Organization and Guidance Department, a mysterious agency that watches all that’s going on in the government, the ruling party and the top levels of the army, she has the authority to exact penalties ranging from exile to minor posts in the countryside to imprisonment and death.
Her exact title is first vice director of the OGD, said Lee Sung-yoon, a professor at Tuft University’s Fletcher School, “but her blue blood supersedes formal titles.” Lee, who is writing a book about her, said “she is the de facto No. 2 in the DPRK (North Korean) hierarchy and the only true confidante of consequence for Kim Jong Un.”
As if that alone were not quite enough, she is believed also to be first vice director of the United Front Department. The title, Lee said, may not seem all powerful, but the meaning is clear: “By the authority granted by her brother Kim Jong Un, the Party, and the State, she will henceforth punish South Korea, which she designated an ‘enemy.’”
Kim Yo Jong obviously could not have risen to such heights had she not been Kim Jong Il's daughter, but she’s shown remarkable charm, wit and strength in bypassing other family members.
One other brother, Kim Jong Chol, who’s three or four years older than Kim Jong Un, is said to have been discarded by their father as “too effeminate” to be a proper heir to any position. Photographed several years ago attending Eric Clapton concerts in Singapore and London, he’s known to be an avid guitar player himself. Within the tightly shut doors of one or more of the ruling family’s compounds, he is presumably strumming away—no harm done and no threat.
And there was the eldest half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, born of Kim Jong Il’s first mistress, discarded by their father as too much a playboy to be his heir and relegated to exile in Macao. Still seeing him as dangerous, Kim Jong Un in 2017 had him rubbed out, literally, by two young massage ladies as he was about to fly back to Macao from the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur. North Korean saboteurs had paid the poor women, from Indonesia and Vietnam, to smear a liquid on his face that turned out to be a VX chemical agent that killed him within minutes.
Might Kim Yo Jong—possibly too shrewd for her own good—be risking a similar fate? Despite her best efforts, she cannot help but arouse concerns that big brother sooner or later will decide he’s had enough of her and isolate or even get rid of her, as he’s done with other members of his own family.
Kim Jong Un “would not like the outside media characterizing him as potentially dead or dying and his sister as a potential replacement,” said Bruce Bennett, Korea expert at Rand. “That could undermine his position inside North Korea.” Still, “she may have been functioning strongly within North Korea,” dealing with internal matters while her brother works on “regaining the external media focus for himself.”
So how does she get away with rising to star power in the galaxy of North Korean leadership without so far getting into deep trouble with her brother?
If Jong Un is not all that happy to see Yo Jong talked about so much as a strong force, he still needs her. Packing 300-plus pounds on his 5-foot-7-inch frame, he’s battling undisclosed ailments believed to range from diabetes to heart disease. There’s even speculation that he may have contracted, who knows, a touch of COVID-19 – enough to keep him out of sight for rather lengthy periods.
Little sister has also been out of the limelight for weeks at a time, contributing to the impression of repression. Rising up in importance, she knows how to keep her head down. One sure way to disappear would be to undercut a paranoid character who can’t stand real competition but may not always be physically up to the job.
President Moon’s special adviser on foreign affairs, Moon Chung-in, had the rare opportunity of seeing Kim Yo Jong in person at two summits with her brother in Pyongyang. She was “humble in appearance,” Moon told the Daily Beast. “She was well mannered… She didn’t speak a lot.”
Never mind that her position at her brother’s side would seem like proof positive of her upward trajectory in the hierarchy. A strong advocate of accommodation with the North, Moon does not agree that her presence at such vital meetings is evidence of her dramatic rise.
“In North Korea there’s only one leader,” said Moon, a retired professor who courts influential Americans and organizes conferences in search of support for President Moon’s soft-line approach. “She was a driver in improving relations between North and South Korea, but the term ‘second in power’ is a distortion.”
Evans Revere, former top diplomat in the U.S. embassy here, understands the game she’s playing. “Kim Jong Un evidently does not see her as a threat,” he said. “She has been careful not to overshadow KJU and has cultivated the image of someone who is clearly subordinate to him.”
Yo Jong had to have had a strong background role for some time before making her international debut at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics in Korea in February 2018, watching the opening ceremony in the VIP box behind Vice President Mike Pence and then bearing an invitation from her big brother to President Moon to get together.
The image during the Olympics was that of a polite, earnest go-between, but early this year, after she was made an alternate member of the politburo of the ruling Workers’ Party, of which her brother of course is chairman, she began really acting up in public.
Dropping all pretense of politeness, she denounced the Moon government in Seoul for frowning on North Korean missile launches, saying “such a gangster-like assertion can never be expected from those with normal way of thinking.” No, she was careful not to refer to Moon by name but said the Blue House, the presidential residence and office complex, was behaving in a manner that was “perfectly foolish.” The response of Moon’s inner circle, she taunted, was like “a child dreading fire.”
Most recently, she showed her public face again, saying she would “never forget” how South Korea’s foreign minister, Kang Kyung-wha, had said North Korea’s claims of no cases of COVID-19 were “hard to believe.” Kang, she warned direly, “might have to pay dearly” for having uttered such words.
Kim Yo Jong’s greatest success, though, was getting Moon and his party’s national assembly majority to shut down the balloonists in the face of criticism among political foes here as well as human rights activists overseas even as Moon’s popularity rating was falling below 40 percent.
Foreign Minister Kang in a CNN interview defended the anti-balloon law as justified in a “highly militarily tense area where anything can go wrong, lead to even bigger clashes,” but John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch in New York, called it “a great disservice” to the people of both Koreas. South Korea, he said, “seems more interested in keeping Kim Jong Un happy than letting its own citizens exercise their basic rights on behalf of their northern neighbors.”
The real test of Kim Yo Jong’s influence may come in dealing with the incoming Biden administration. She once “dismissed the likelihood or necessity of further U.S.-North Korean dialogue,” Bruce Klingner, Asia expert at the Heritage Foundation, recalled, but “left the door open if Washington capitulated to Pyongyang’s demands.”
Formal titles aside, she’s “likely the second most powerful person in North Korea”—the one whom her brother “trusts the most,” said Klingner. Whether she would “become leader if her brother passed away suddenly remains unknown, but certainly that’s a much stronger possibility than only a few years ago.”