North Korea’s Kim Kyong Hui: Powerful Sister Promoted in Shakeup

Kim Kyong Hui, sister to the outgoing ruler, got a big promotion in Pyongyang Tuesday, putting her at equal standing in North Korea’s nuclear-armed military with the dictator’s youngest son and heir apparent, Kim Jong Un. Philip Shenon on the new four-star general’s reputation for being a mean drunk, bumping off political rivals, and driving her own daughter to suicide.

An undated family photo of North Korea's leader Kim Jong-il (front L), his youngest son Kim Jong-Un (front R),his fourth wife Kim Ok (second row L), his sister Kim Kyong-hui (second row middle) and her husband Jang Song-Thaek (second row R). (Photo: Newsc

In North Korea, the sister also rises.

The announcement Tuesday that dictator Kim Jong Il’s only sister—64-year-old Kim Kyong Hui— was being promoted to four-star general in the North Korean army startled some veteran Pyongyang watchers.

They tell The Daily Beast that her promotion means that Mrs. Kim, widely reputed across the border in South Korea to be a mean drunk capable of having her political rivals bumped off and driving her own daughter to suicide, would have equal standing in North Korea’s nuclear-armed military with the dictator’s youngest son and heir apparent, Kim Jong Un.

The dictator’s callow son, mostly a mystery to western intelligence agencies, is believed to be in his mid- to late-20’s and to have attended a Swiss boarding school under a false name. (Former schoolmates in Switzerland report that he loved American basketball and worshipped Michael Jordan and Hollywood action star Jean-Claude Van Damme.)

“She doesn’t have anything in her background to suggest military credentials,” Revere said. “It’s a sign that she really must be a player, a critical component of the family’s game plan for maintaining itself in power.”

The younger Kim was also promoted this week to four-star general, but that move had been anticipated in the weeks since the ailing Kim Jong Il called an extraordinary meeting of the nation’s ruling Workers Party to determine the party’s future. What was a surprise was the identical promotion of Mrs. Kim, the new leader’s aunt and clearly a growing power in her own right.

“There’s logic in giving such an exalted military rank to the son, because he needs to have the credentials with the military,” said Evans Revere, a former top American diplomat in South Korea. “But Kim Kyong Hui? Making her a four-star general? A person with absolutely no connection with the military?”

“She doesn’t have anything in her background to suggest military credentials,” he said. “It’s a sign that she really must be a player, a critical component of the family’s game plan for maintaining itself in power.”

Her responsibilities as a four-star general are unclear.

In the endless puzzles of the North Korean dynasty, it is also unclear to the outside world what sort of relationship exists among members of the Kim family, although it has appeared from official propaganda over the last year that Mrs. Kim’s star has been rising in Pyongyang.

She has been seen repeatedly at her brother’s arm on official tours and other public events, including an opera performance in February after which she was observed speaking with Russian diplomats. She is married to another powerful figure, Jang Song Taek, who is among her dictator-brother’s top advisors.

Mrs. Kim’s rise gives no hope to Korea watchers that she might bring a lighter, feminine touch to the otherwise brutal regime—far from it.

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Korea scholars and diplomats who specialize in Korean affairs say they have no particular reason to doubt reports in the press in South Korea and Japan that Mrs. Kim arranged a traffic accident in June 2009 in which a rival party official was killed.

Philip Shenon: Kim Jong Il Names SuccessorThey also have no reason, they say, to question reports that she is a raging alcoholic whose relationship with her own children has been poisonous. Last year, a South Korean newspaper reported that she had been hospitalized due to complications from alcoholism, possibly falling at one point into a coma and suffering brain damage. According to South Korean reports, her only daughter committed suicide in France in 2006—a decision some news accounts linked to her frayed ties with her mother. These press accounts have, on occasion, referred to Mrs. Kim as “evil.”

Jae H. Ku, director of the U.S.-Korea Institute at the School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, said that while it was impossible to confirm any of the more scandalous reports about Mrs. Kim, “they would not surprise me – this is a brutal political system that is really tough to play in.”

He said he suspected that Mrs. Kim was promoted “as an insurance policy for the family.” The ailing dictator “wants to make sure everyone in his family has a title to make sure the lineage continues,” Ku said.

The promotion may also be a way for her brother to “stick a finger into China’s eye” by frustrating the hopes of Chinese leader for some sort of economic and political reform after Kim dies, Ku said. In recent years, the North Korean dictator has appeared to resent efforts by China, nominally Pyongyang’s last true ally, to push for change.

Ku said he was surprised by Mrs. Kim’s new post as a four-star general if only because she has been so little seen in North Korea propaganda until recently.

"She had really been out of the news for a couple of decades,” he said. “Her promotion suggests to me that Kim Jong Il in his last days really has no one to turn to except for family. It’s a very Asian, Korean thing.”

Was it possible that Mrs. Kim could be a rival to her nephew for control?

Ku and other Korea watchers said they doubted it. “It would be very difficult for her to come out and usurp power at this point,” he said. At the same time, he said, reports in South Korea suggest that she may be closer to her wayward older nephew – the dictator’s eldest son, Kim Jong Nam, who was passed over for succession – than Kim Jong Un. The elder son repeatedly embarrassed his father with his gambling and shopping jaunts across Asia and Europe.

Revere, the former American diplomat, said it was possible that Mrs. Kim has her own ambitions for power.

“It’s almost a Shakespearean question when you look at the family machinations,” he said. “On paper, she is theoretically a rival to Kim Jong Un, as are many other people,” But Revere quickly conceded that “we’re really groping here—this is the most secretive family in the world.”

Philip Shenon is an investigative reporter based in Washington D.C. He was a reporter at The New York Times from 1981 until 2008. He left the paper in May 2008, a few weeks after his first book, The Commission: The Uncensored History of the 9/11 Investigation , hit the bestsellers lists of both The New York Times and The Washington Post. He has reported from several war zones and was one of two reporters from the Times embedded with American ground troops during the invasion of Iraq in the 1991 Gulf War.