Retrograde? Put aside? Kim Jong Un’s sister’s fate unclear

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – What happened to Kim Yo Jong, the influential sister of the North Korean leader?

That’s a question many watching the cloistered, nuclear-armed country ask after she failed to appear on absolute leader Kim Jong Un’s newly released list for the country’s powerful Politburo in recent days.

Some say Kim Jong Un may have demoted his sister due to policy failures. Others, however, believe he might be worried about his rapid rise and growing notoriety as he attempts to bolster his national authority in the face of growing economic challenges.

Rumors that Kim Yo Jong is his brother’s alleged heir could be dangerous because they “raise the question of Kim’s grip on power and health in North Korea,” analyst Oh Gyeong-seob said. at the Korean Institute for National Unification in Seoul. This is why, he said, Kim Jong Un is slowing his rise to power.

The development comes as a surprise as Kim Yo Jong, who became an alternate Politburo member last year, was widely expected to receive a full member of the bureau at a ruling Workers’ Party convention that ended. Tuesday. A Politburo membership is seen as crucial for senior officials hoping to prosper in Kim Jong Un’s government because he made key decisions at office meetings, including the 2013 decision to execute his powerful uncle Jang Song. Taek, and the 2012 purge of military leader Ri Yong Ho.

When the eight-day convention, the first of its kind since 2016, opened last week, Kim Yo Jong, said to be around 32, sat on the leadership podium, standing out among party officials. often elderly and predominantly male. But when Congress on Monday announced a list of 30 alternate and titular Politburo members, including Kim Jong Un, 37, his name was not there.

Kim Yo Jong was not purged or forced out of politics, a fate some officials encountered under Kim Jong Un, and she still retains her membership in the party’s Central Committee, also a high-level body. But when she released a statement criticizing South Korea on Wednesday, state media identified her as a “deputy head of department” of the party, below her former title of “first deputy head of the department.” .

Kim Jong Un is urging his 25 million people to join his leadership in overcoming what he called his country’s “worst difficulties”. North Korea has faced economic shocks related to coronaviruses, a wave of natural disasters last summer, and persistent US-led sanctions for its pursuit of illicit nuclear weapons. During the congress, Kim pledged to expand his nuclear arsenal and build a stronger and more self-reliant economy.

“The purpose of the congress is to solidify Kim Jong Un’s leadership. If Kim Yo Jong had become a full member of the Politburo, all eyes would have been on her … and Kim Jong Un probably felt that as a burden.” Ko Young-hwan, former deputy director of the Institute for National Security Strategy, a think tank run by the South Korean spy agency, said on a television news program on Monday.

Previously little known to foreigners, Kim Yo Jong has exploded politically since his brother inherited power after the death of their father, Kim Jong Il, in late 2011.

The current Kim’s 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 legendary “paektu” lineage ”, Named after the most sacred in the North. mountain, allows only direct family members to rule the country.

Kim Yo Jong gained international fame after her brother’s nuclear diplomacy with President Donald Trump and other world leaders in 2018 and 2019. In those meetings, her closeness to Kim Jong Un sparked speculation that she was chief of staff to his brother. .

In South Korea, she has carved out an image for herself as a “messenger of peace” after attending the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang 2018 Olympic Winter Games, becoming the first member of the Northern ruling family to travel to the South since the end of the Korean War 1950-53. .

Last year, however, she abruptly changed course by launching harsh diatribes against South Korea and pressuring the United States to make concessions in blocked nuclear diplomacy. North Korean state media have said she is in charge of relations with South Korea, and outside experts have speculated that she may hand over U.S. affairs as well.

In her statement on Wednesday, she criticized South Korea for provoking the North by announcing that it had detected intelligence that North Korea was holding a military parade or rehearsal for such a parade this week.

When unconfirmed global rumors about Kim Jong Un’s health rose last year, some observers said Kim Yo Jong was next to lead North Korea if his brother was incapacitated. The South Korean spy agency later said she was practically the North’s second official, but had not been anointed as her brother’s heir.

“Kim Jong Un probably held her sister responsible for the deterioration of (external) ties, as she had no success in relations with the United States and South Korea,” said Kim Yeol Soo, analyst at Korea Institute of Military Affairs of South Korea.

Whatever the reason for his apparent loss of his Politburo post, many experts say his political influence likely remains unchanged thanks to his direct connection to the paektu lineage. There is also a feeling that Kim Jong Un could eventually give him another high profile job.

Oh, the analyst said Kim Yo Jong is probably the second most powerful woman in North Korean history after Kim Song Ae, the late second wife of Kim Il Sung.

“Kim Yo Jong can meet and talk to Kim Jong Un freely at any time … so we can’t help but say that she has a huge influence,” Oh said. “As we get older, his roles will be greater.”

But, he added, her rise could come to an end if she covets more power. “She has to be careful about this,” he said.

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