Kim Yo Jong was still in her 20s in 2011 when her father, Kim Jong Il, died and her brother Kim Jong Un took power. Her debut on the international stage came in 2018, when she acted as a special envoy at the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and met with the country’s president, Moon Jae-in.
Kim Yo Jong became the first vice director of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea. Her political star has risen steadily since her brother took power, leading to speculation that she could one day become the country’s first female ruler. But while there are plausible reasons for her recent elevation, analysts say, the traditional patriarchal nature of North Korean society will likely prevent her from advancing higher up the ranks.
But the younger sister’s rise to what many now see as the de facto No. 2 position in the Kim regime has historical precedent and political logic behind it.
“There is nothing unusual about, say, a sibling of the current leader to be his second in command. It’s actually a very well-established tradition of the Kim family,” says professor Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul. He notes that Kim Jong Il, the current leader’s father, was assisted by his sister during his rule in the 1990s.
Kim Yo Jong’s new role was necessitated by her brother’s disappearance this spring, Lankov says, apparently because of an unknown illness. (By one estimate, Kim Jong Un has made only seven public appearances from April through June, compared with 46 in the same period last year.)
“This makes it more necessary for him to have a trusted deputy,” Lankov says. “And this person has to come from, if you like, the royal family, and in the ruling clan, they have now a shortage of adults.”