Kim Yo Jong is a top government official and was recently named an alternate Politburo member of the country's Workers' Party of Korea

By Georgia Slater
April 28, 2020 03:42 PM
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As conflicting news reports continue to fuel speculation about Kim Jong Un's health — more than two weeks after he was last seen publicly — the focus has shifted to the North Korean leader's younger sister and possible successor, Kim Yo Jong, who is a senior government official.

CNN cited a U.S. official last week who said there was intelligence suggesting Kim Jong Un was, according to the network, “in grave danger.” Bloomberg’s U.S. sources said Kim had had cardiovascular surgery and been in critical condition.

On Sunday, however, a top aide to South Korean President Moon Jae-in told CNN that Kim was "alive and well" and "has been staying in the Wonsan area [in eastern North Korea] since April 13."

The South Korean unification minister told lawmakers on Tuesday that Kim may be out of view because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, according to Reuters.

On Monday, President Donald Trump told reporters, "I hope he’s fine. I do know how he’s doing, relatively speaking. We will see. You’ll probably be hearing in the not too distant future."

Kim Yo Jong
| Credit: JORGE SILVA/AFP/Getty

Kim was last shown in state media on April 11, when he attended a government meeting.

Speculation surrounding his health first began after he was absent from the April 15th celebration for his late grandfather Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea, whose birthday is thought to be the country’s most important holiday.

North Korea is infamously closed off from other countries and information about its society and government, and about Kim in particular, is difficult to verify.

His death would likely create instability in the country, because there is no clear plan of succession.

Observers are looking at Kim Yo Jong as a potential front-runner to take over the family and, by extension, the country it has ruled for more than 70 years.

Here are some key things to know about her.

She is high ranking and 'not one to be underestimated'

While the inner workings of the authoritarian regime remain mysterious, it's become clear that Kim Yo Jong is a leading official even if her ultimate influence is unclear. (As with her brother, her exact age is unconfirmed but she is believed to be in her 30s.)

According to TIME, she is the vice director of the propaganda and agitation department in the country's ruling Workers' Party of Korea — the agency that deals with censorship.

Earlier this month, she was named an alternate Politburo member of the party, Bloomberg reported. Her appointment comes nearly a year after she left her role in the powerful decision-making body for an unspecified reason.

In 2017, the United States blacklisted Kim Yo Jong and several other North Korean officials for human rights abuses, citing her work in propaganda and censorship, which supports the cult of personality surrounding the Kims.

The country has a notoriously poor human rights record, including executions and political imprisonment.

The younger Kim "is, as best we can tell, a very capable and high-skilled member of the North Korean leadership — and is not one to underestimated by any stretch of the imagination,” Harry J. Kazianis, the senior director of Korean Studies at the Center for the National Interest, told TIME.

Speaking with Voice of America, Kazianis said: “Ms. Kim is clearly moving up the ranks over the last few years — adding more and more top-tier positions to her [party] leadership resume, something needed if she was to ever take the reins of power."

Kim Yo Jong
| Credit: Patrick Semansky/Pool/Getty

Kim Yo Jong is also in charge of making sure her brother's public image and other operations are upheld, according to The Washington Post.

The two seemingly have a close relationship, and "Kim Jong Un appears to place trust in his sister," Leif-Eric Easley, associate professor of international studies at Ewha University in Seoul, told The Guardian.

"She has demonstrated skills at modernizing the brand of the regime and has some sway over state propaganda. Her most important function is probably as a confidant to her brother," he added.

Perhaps her most crucial qualification, however, is her bloodline: Since its founding, North Korea's supreme leadership has passed from father to son for three generations. While Kim Jong Un is believed to have children too young to rule, Kim Yo Jong, as his sister, would preserve continuity of a family that is venerated as god-like.

She first surfaced at her father's funeral in 2011

Kim Yo Jong is the youngest daughter of the late Kim Jong Il and made her first public appearance at his funeral in 2011.

Her dad had several sons and daughters with multiple wives, and the family's hierarchy can be fluid — as when eldest son Kim Jong Nam fell from grace and was later assassinated. Further back in the family tree, her uncle Kim Pyong Il is receiving some notice as a possible replacement should Kim Jong Un die, because the country's patriarchal ruling class may reject her.

She was speculated to be her father's favorite, the BBC reported. He would call her names like "Princess Yo Jong" or "sweet, sweet Yo Jong," according to the Post.

She later gained attention when she represented Kim Jong Un at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.

Her visit to the country was the first time a member of North Korea's ruling family had traveled to South Korea since the Korean War in the 1950s, according to Business Insider.

She went to school in Switzerland

Kim Yo Jong was born in Pyongyang, the North Korea capital, and later went to the Liebefeld-Steinhölzli public school in Bern, Switzerland, for several years — the same school attended by her brother, according to the Post.

During her time in Bern, she reportedly went by the name Pak Mi Hyang and took ballet lessons before returning to North Korea in 2000.

She may be married

According to TIME, Kim Yo Jong is supposedly married to Choe Song, the son of Choe Ryong Hae, who is "one of the most powerful officials in [North Korea’s] formal hierarchy,” according to the North Korea Leadership Watch.

The Post cited reports that she and Song have at least one child together, and the paper was able to confirm that she has been seen with a band on her wedding finger.