Who is Kim Yo Jong and will she become North Korea’s next leader?

With reports Kim Jong Un is critically ill, speculation is mounting his sister could take over as head of the secretive state

Kim Jong Un and sister Kim Yo Jong at 2018 Inter-Korean Summit
(Image credit: Korea Summit Press Pool/Getty Images)

Rumours that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is seriously ill have fuelled speculation that his death could trigger a brutal power struggle to take control of the rogue nuclear state.

Amid silence from authorities in Pyongyang over reports the 36-year-old has undergone heart surgery and is in a critical condition, “there is renewed worry about who is next in line to run a nuclear-armed country that has been ruled by the same family for seven decades”, says ITV News.

Leading the field is his sister Kim Yo Jong, who has enjoyed a rapid rise through the ranks of the ruling Communist party to become the single most important figure in the North Korean regime after her brother.

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So who is Kim Yo Jong?

Computer-graduate-turned-propagandist Kim Yo Jong - reportedly in her late 20s or early 30s - is considered “the brains” behind her brother’s “carefully constructed public image, at home and abroad”, The Guardian says.

“In return, she enjoys the absolute confidence of her brother, a leader capable of ordering the execution of his own uncle for alleged treason,” reports the paper.

Moon Hong-sik, a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Strategy in Seoul, told Reuters: “As the saying goes, ‘Blood is thicker than water.’ Kim Jong Un thinks Kim Yo Jong can be trusted.”

Unlike other family members, as a woman she is not viewed as a direct threat to Kim’s rule. However, as a senior member of the country’s Politburo since 2017, she “is now seen as the ‘alter ego’ of the North Korean dictator”, says The Sun, and “thought to be the most important figure in the tyrannical regime after her brother”.

Family ties

Kim Yo Jong and Kim Jong Un share the same mother and father - Ko Yong Hui, a former dancer born in Japan, and former ruler Kim Jong Il, who died in 2011, CNBC says.

Like her brother, Kim Yo Jong is believed to have attended the International School of Berne, Switzerland. She reportedly then studied computer science at North Korea’s Kim Il Sung University.

In March 2014, Kim Yo Jong was officially mentioned in state media for the first time when she accompanied her brother during elections for the Supreme People’s Assembly.

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Rise to power

Since Kim Jong Un’s anointment as the third leader of the Kim dynasty, in 2010, his sister has frequently been seen accompanying him on “field guidance trips” and at other public events.

In 2014 she was made deputy director of the Workers’ Party Propaganda and Agitation Department, overseeing ideological messaging through the media and culture.

“She, not [her brother], is said to be the inspiration behind his visits to theme parks, schools and the homes of ordinary people, and his unlikely friendship with the former NBA star Dennis Rodman,” The Guardian says.

That appointment boosted her national profile, but it also led to her being blacklisted by the US Treasury Department in January 2017 for “severe human rights abuses” and censorship that concealed the regime’s “inhumane and oppressive behaviour”, reports HuffPost UK.

In 2018, she joined a high-level delegation attending the Winter Olympics in South Korea, the first official visit by a member of North Korea’s ruling family and a sign of improved North-South relations.

According to The Sun, she fell out with her brother following the failure of the Hanoi denuclearisation summit but last weekend was reinstated to the Politburo role she first held in 2017, signalling a “remarkable return to favour”.

In a state media photo in 2015, Kim Yo Jong was seen wearing a ring on her fourth finger, or ring finger, during a visit to a childcare centre. South Korean intelligence officials said Kim might have wed a schoolmate from Kim Il Sung University, but there has been no confirmation of this, HuffPost reports.

What are the obstacles to her rule?

The possibility of Kim Yo Jong inheriting power is “more than 90%”, Cheong Seong-chang, an analyst at the Sejong Institute in South Korea, told the Associated Press.

She has “royal blood”, he noted, and “North Korea is like a dynasty.”

ITV News says: “The family’s mythical ‘Paektu’ bloodline, named after the highest peak on the Korean Peninsula, is said to give only direct family members the right to rule the nation.”

That makes Kim Yo Jong “the most likely candidate to step in if her brother is gravely ill, incapacitated or dies”, says the broadcaster.

However, Quartz says others see the “macho culture of North Korea’s regime as a barrier to her assuming power”.

As Bloomberg reported in 2017: “The male-dominated, patriarchal leadership structure all but rules out Kim Yo Jong... as a potential successor.”

Yet none of Kim Jong Un’s children are old enough to assume power, and his older brother, Kim Jong Chol, is widely believed to have no interest in politics or public life.

“What might emerge, then, is a collective leadership incorporating both royal family members and loyal senior figures,” says Quartz. In this arrangement Kim Yo Jong would likely be “a major force, despite her gender”, says the website, with other officials serving as figureheads.

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