Life Beyond Kim: The Sister in Chief
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because Kim Yo Jong is North Korea’s trusted propaganda specialist.
By Daniel Malloy
This OZY Encore was first published in 2018.
In the closed-off Communist dictatorship of North Korea, life revolves around one man: Kim Jong Un. But with a possible high-stakes summit looming between the nuclear-armed hermit kingdom and the United States, OZY is taking a look at the key figures around the third-generation autocrat. This is Life Beyond Kim.
She’s impossible to miss, her grief-stricken face streaked with tears. The state television camera frames her perfectly over the right shoulder of her older brother, who has just become the supreme leader of North Korea. She lines up with top regime officials to pay respects at the glass-enclosed casket of her father, and stands sentry as Kim Jong Un receives foreign dignitaries. In the middle of a delicate power transition after the 2011 death of Kim Jong Il, the message to the North Korean people — and the outside world — is that young Kim Yo Jong is positioned at the center of power.
More than six years later, the 30-or-so-year-old (her exact age is unknown) has fully arrived, bringing smiles rather than the regime’s usual clenched fist to February’s Olympic Games in South Korea. The result was a global media coup befitting her role as propaganda minister, even though she didn’t speak publicly. The South Korean press dubbed her the hermit kingdom’s Ivanka Trump. To her country, she’s much more than that.
Does she have the killer instinct that her aunt had?
Ken Gause, North Korea leadership expert
Kim Jong Il and consort Ko Yong Hui had three children: Kim Jong Chul (rejected by his father as a successor), Kim Jong Un and Kim Yo Jong. They have many more half siblings, but the trio kept close. As children, they were sent to school in Switzerland under assumed names. Kim Yo Jong’s doting father referred to her as “Princess Yo Jong,” according to the family’s former sushi chef who defected. The outside world got occasional glimpses of her awkward years. “A few years ago, before her father died, people thought she was a little weird,” says Ken Gause, of CNA’s Center for Strategic Studies and author of North Korean House of Cards: Leadership Dynamics Under Kim Jong-un. During official events, Kim Yo Jong could be spotted in the background picking flowers or pretending to be an airplane, Gause says.
In 2001, Russia’s then ambassador asked Kim Jong Il which of his children would succeed him. According to Michael Madden, an expert on the regime and publisher of the website North Korea Leadership Watch, the leader responded by referring to his sons as “idle blockheads” and predicted one of his more politically savvy daughters would take over.
That’s not how it turned out, of course. The basketball-obsessed middle son was carefully molded into supreme leader, but with a princess at his side. Details about Kim Yo Jong, like most people in North Korea, are sketchy and hard to verify. We know she studied at Kim Il Sung University, and she’s believed to have some training in computers — but it’s unclear how much. As her father neared death, she became an intermediary between him and the leader-in-waiting. She was also close to Kim Kyong Hui, her aunt. State media showed the two women riding horses together, and Kim Yo Jong’s outfit and demeanor at her father’s funeral precisely mirrored her aunt’s role at the 1994 state funeral of Kim Kyong Hui’s father, Kim Il Sung.
Kim Yo Jong has carefully cemented the trust of her powerful brother — even as he’s killed off other family members. But purged relatives were either rivals or rebels, and Kim Yo Jong is neither. She was promoted to head of the propaganda department, vetting images and video of the leader for wide distribution, a critical instrument of the totalitarian, isolated state. More recently, Madden says, she has expanded her influence to be closer to a chief of staff for her brother.
But she’s still green, and there’s a question of whether she can wield power as effectively as her aunt. “It’s one thing to occupy the position, but another thing to have the relationships in the regime that will play an important role in the ability to be the eyes and ears of the regime,” Gause says. “Kim Kyong Hui had one of the most powerful and extensive patronage networks inside North Korea.… Does she have the killer instinct that her aunt had?”
Kim Yo Jong’s deft Olympic moment showed the world her pivotal role while also proving her diplomatic skill to leaders back home. Meanwhile, United States Vice President Mike Pence avoided her, including an awkward non-encounter as they stood next to each other at the opening ceremonies. But she was received warmly by South Korean President Moon Jae-in and treated like a visiting royal by the South Korean press. Widely circulated was her inscription in a guest book: “I hope Pyongyang and Seoul get closer in our people’s hearts and move forward to the future of prosperous unification” — prompting the media to analyze her handwriting.
Her charm offensive in Pyeongchang helped pave the way for a high-level meeting between two nations that have technically been at war for nearly 70 years. At the meeting a few weeks later, a South Korean official delivered a letter from President Moon to Kim Jong Un. He scanned it briefly, then handed it off to his sister.