North Korea watchers are wondering where the Supreme Leader’s sister Kim Yo Jong is after she failed to appear in a line-up for the powerful Politburo this week.
This was a surprise because she was widely expected to receive a crucial full Politburo membership during the Workers’ Party congress that ended on Tuesday, but when the list of full members was announced, her name wasn’t there, reports the Associated Press.
When the congress opened, Yo Jong, who is around 32, sat on the leadership podium, standing out from the often elderly, overwhelmingly male members.
Experts say Kim Jong Un may be worried about her rapid rise and increasingly high profile as he tries to boost his own authority in the face of growing economic challenges.
“Rumours that Kim Yo Jong is her brother’s heir apparent could be dangerous because they raise the issue of Kim’s hold on power,” said Oh Gyeong-seob, an analyst at Seoul’s Korea Institute for National Unification.
Yo Jong hasn’t been purged or forced to quit politics, and she still retains her membership of the party’s important Central Committee, but when she released a statement criticising South Korea on Wednesday, state media called her a “vice department director” of the party, a lower rank than she held previously.
Jong Un is urging his 25 million people to rally behind his leadership to overcome what he calls his nation’s “worst-ever” difficulties.
North Korea faces coronavirus-related economic shocks, a spate of natural disasters last summer, and US-led sanctions over its pursuit of nuclear weapons. During the congress, Kim vowed to expand his nuclear arsenal and build a stronger, self-reliant economy.
“If Kim Yo Jong had become a full Politburo member, all eyes would have been on her, and Kim Jong Un probably felt that as a burden,” Ko Young-hwan, of the South Korean Institute for National Security Strategy, said on Monday.
The current Kims are the third generation of their family to rule North Korea, and their leadership is based on a personality cult established after their grandfather Kim Il Sung founded the country in 1948.
Their fabled “paektu” bloodline, named after the North’s most sacred mountain, allows only direct family members to rule the country.
Yo Jong rose to prominence after her brother’s high-stakes nuclear diplomacy with President Donald Trump in 2018 and 2019.
In South Korea, she built an image as “a peace messenger” after she attended the opening ceremony of the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, becoming the first member of the North’s ruling family to visit the South since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.
Last year, however, she abruptly changed course by launching harsh diatribes against South Korea.
When global rumours about Kim Jong Un’s health arose last year, some observers said Yo Jong was next in line to rule North Korea.
South Korea’s spy agency said later that she was virtually the North’s No. 2 official but hadn’t yet been anointed as her brother’s heir.
“Kim Jong Un probably held his sister responsible for worsened relations with the US and South Korea,” said Kim Yeol Soo, of South Korea’s Institute for Military Affairs.
Many experts say her political clout will remain unchanged thanks to her direct link to the paektu bloodline.
She is probably the second-most powerful woman in North Korean history after Kim Song Ae, the late second wife of Kim Il Sung, said Oh. “She can talk to Kim Jong Un freely anytime, so she has tremendous influence. As she gets older, her roles will get bigger.”
But, he added, her rise could quickly end if she covets more power. “She has to be very careful about that.”