Kim Yo Jong ranks as No. 2 behind her big brother Kim Jong Un in the North Korean hierarchy—but rumors are swirling that her star is fading after she was missing in action at the latest top-level party confab.
South Korea’s National Intelligence Service offered that analysis in the wake of a meeting of the central committee of the ruling Workers’ Party, at which Chairman Kim confessed the extreme suffering the North is enduring amid COVID-19, heavy flooding and U.N. and U.S. sanctions.
Still, the mysterious absence of Kim Yo Jong—who ranks officially as an alternate member of the party politburo—does not necessarily mean that she has displeased her brother, who has been known to viciously turn on and eliminate his own relatives.
In the view of South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, according to a closed-door briefing for South Korean lawmakers, Yo Jong is still “steering overall state affairs” as first vice department director of the party’s central committee.
As chairman of the party and the omnipotent state affairs commission, Kim Jong Un for sure has “absolute authority,” said the NIS as reported by the South’s Yonhap news agency, “but some of it has been handed over little by little.” The NIS, said the report, ranks Yo Jong as “de facto number two leader” behind her brother, who has not yet picked a successor.
One reason Yo Jong was not visible at the party meeting Wednesday was no doubt that she focuses mainly on the U.S. and South Korea while the session was solely concerned with economic issues, as reported by the North’s state media.
At the meeting, Kim Jong Un announced a full-dress party congress to be held in January, according to Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency, in order to weigh all “the deviations and shortcomings” in fulfilling the dreams of the last party congress five years ago and come up with a new five-year plan to replace the old one.
With a bluntness rarely seen in the North’s tightly controlled media, Kim said the economy “has failed to improve in the face of persistently severe internal and external situations and unexpected manifold challenges.” Goals for national economic growth “have not yet been attained nor the people's living standards improved markedly,” he said, while the country faced “unexpected and unavoidable challenges” and “mistakes that have been made”
All of which leads Evans Revere, a former senior U.S. diplomat in Seoul, to conclude that “Kim Jong Un has now removed all uncertainty about the economic crisis that North Korea is facing.” As for Kim Yo Jong, “my sense is that Kim Jong Un likes to deploy her selectively and strategically to handle issues related to North-South and U.S. matters.”
The sense of desperation was evident in Pyongyang where Kim has “opened emergency grain storage and reduced the number of retired soldiers who are qualified to live there,” says Choi Jin-wook, president of the Center for Strategic and Cultural Studies in Seoul. Soldiers who had earned the privilege of retirement in the capital have had to go elsewhere “probably because of food rationing,” he says, but “all these are only short-term measures.”
Kim’s “inability to feed the people in Pyongyang” indicates he’s “short of hard currency” and faces “major financial and loyalty problems because he buys loyalty with gifts,” says Bruce Bennett at the Rand Corporation. Flooding suggests “he will likely have a bad harvest leading to starvation this winter” while “exacerbating food and other shortages” by closing the borders and rejecting food aid for fear of spreading COVID-19.
COVID-19 may also explain some of the lengthy disappearances, for weeks at a time this year, of Kim Jong Un as well as his sister. “It is entirely possible that he was actually sick, perhaps even with the coronavirus,” he says. “Remembering that Kim Jong Un is supposed to be the god of North Korea, he would not want to appear publicly to be sick, because, of course, gods do not get sick.”
Similarly, says Bennett, “Yo Jong may also have gotten sick, perhaps also with the coronavirus. If so, we should see her again in a few weeks.” Then again, he notes, maybe her big brother “was becoming concerned that Yo Jong was getting far too much media and outside attention, and he therefore decided to restrict her visibility for a while.”
In fact, the NIS believes there’s been a clear division of responsibility with a newly appointed premier, Kim Tok-hun, charged with economic issues and others taking on top military positions—all part of a shakeup throughout the ruling elite provoked by the hardship besetting the country.
The explicit detail of the NIS report may reflect the appointment as NIS director of an old-time figure in dealings with North Korea —78-year-old Park Jie-won, who visited Pyongyang many times while pursuing the “sunshine policy” of reconciliation on behalf of the late South Korean president, Kim Dae-jung. Park, who arranged for Kim to fly to Pyongyang in June 2000 for the first inter-Korean summit with Kim Jong Un’s father, Kim Jong Il, knows many senior North Koreas.
While dealing with domestic problems, Kim Jong Un may prefer to let Yo Jong remain in the background. “He does not have time right now for building Kim Yo Jong’s image,” says Robert Collins, long-time intelligence analyst for the U.S. command in Seoul. “The recent frequency of party politburo meetings is a solid indicator that things are beginning to spin out of control.”
Quite aside from the triple whammy of the coronavirus, floods, and sanctions, Collins figures “all the corruption-produced profits that the regime benefits from are also negatively impacting the regime's private economy.”
Lee Sung-yoon at Tuft University’s Fletcher School predicts, however, that Kim Yo Jong will be back in the news. She’s been silent since mocking President Donald Trump on July 10 by sarcastically requesting a DVD of America’s July 4 observances, but Lee expects to hear from her soon.
The topic of North Korea’s nukes and missiles didn’t come up at the latest party meeting, but that’s no guarantee the North is putting all that on hold.
“Most NK watchers say it's very unlikely that Kim would resort to a major provocation before the U.S. election on November 3,” says Lee. Still, “the possibility of a major bang before the election day is very real. What would Kim lose?”
Amid the usual angry statements, Lee says, Kim “after a decent interval could declare he seeks the resumption of talks with whoever is the U.S. president and propose to send sister Yo Jong to Washington.” “Who,” he asks, “will say no?”