About 20 years ago, while traveling across Russia, Kim Jong Il is reported to have made something of a confession to a foreign emissary, Konstantin Pulikovsky. Pulikovsky, a respected Russian diplomat, had asked one of the world’s most reclusive leaders about his family.
Kim Jong Il was believed to have had seven children. His youngest son and future successor, Kim Jong Un, was in his mid-teens at the time.
When Pulikovsky asked about the children, Kim spoke highly of his two daughters. His sons, however, he called “idle blockheads.” Michael Madden, an expert on North Korea’s leadership, adds, “Kim Jong Il loved his sons, but did not necessarily have a high opinion of what they were doing with their lives.”
Despite that apparent assessment, Kim eventually chose his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, to succeed him. While it’s likely the world will never know if Kim seriously considered one of his daughters for the top job, his adoration for his youngest child, Kim Yo Jong, has been documented.
Kenji Fujimoto, the pen name of a former sushi chef for the Kim family, told The Washington Post that Kim Jong Il referred to her as “Princess Yo Jong” and “sweet Yo Jong.” Kim Yo Jong always sat to her father’s left at supper, while Kim Jong Il’s wife sat to his right, Fujimoto said in a book recounting his experience in North Korea.
Kim Jong Il may have believed that it would be a tough sell naming a woman as the next North Korean leader — especially with multiple sons available. North Korea is a notoriously patriarchal country, where women are expected to be dutiful and subordinate wives and doting mothers before all else. Defectors say misogyny, gender discrimination and sexual violence are rampant.
Yet Kim Yo Jong’s position among the North Korean leadership is significant. Her name was among the first mentioned as a possible successor to her brother when he recently disappeared from public view for almost three weeks. When Kim Jong Un did emerge in state media on Saturday, Kim Yo Jong was by his side. Experts say if anything was to happen to him before his young children are old enough to take over, Kim Yo Jong could be the safest and most likely heir.