With sister’s promotion, Kim Jong-un consolidates family’s control over North Korea
Adam Cathcart writes that Kim Yo-jong can no longer be ignored by North Koreans who must shield the Kim family from plots and internal discontent
When looking at North Korea, sometimes it is useful to tune out the Americans altogether and look at who is governing the country internally, and how they are doing it. As the instrument that built and continues to amplify the overarching personality cult of the Kims, the Korean Workers’ Party remains an important vehicle both for controlling and understanding North Korea. On October 7, the party’s Central Committee voted to elevate Kim Yo-jong, the younger sister of Kim Jong-un, to the rank of alternate to the Politburo. It is a further reminder of the unique family dynamic that continues to shape the nominally socialist regime and increasingly marketised society.
It is likely to take a few weeks to digest the meaning of the personnel shifts announced after the unexpected meeting of the party’s Central Committee. The meeting agenda consisted of Kim Jong-un holding forth at length about the complex international situation as he saw it, then further describing the strategy for economic growth under heavy sanctions. But it was the limited reshuffle that then started at the top of the party that attracted the most attention.
For all the discussion of North Korea timing its tests to the Chinese political calendar, this meeting was perhaps also meant to keep the regime proactive and not waiting to see what arrives – a harder line, perhaps? – out of this week’sCommunist Party congress in China. Some initial commentary on the reshuffle was overly optimistic, seeing in the elevation of Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho as an intent to deal diplomatically with the United States and China. But in part this is the problem with the dominant narrative of US-North Korean confrontation: it has a way of assuming that every action taken by the leadership in Pyongyang is motivated by its need to respond to Washington or Beijing.
At the risk of stating the obvious, the elevation of Kim Yo-jong, a 30-year-old woman, as an alternate member of the WKP Politburo, is not about the administration of US President Donald Trump, nor is it about Chinese President Xi Jinping. Put in the context of other Leninist party-states, her appointment would be remarkable under any circumstances. Apart from there being no women on the Politburo, perhaps more shocking is her age; other than the supreme leader, the leadership tends to be overwhelmingly old.
Typical analyses of this young woman will dwell upon her relatively rapid rise to power – she was first seen as her brother’s pale and gaunt opposite during a series of short meetings with foreign dignitaries, including a delegation from Hyundai, directly following Kim Jong-il’s death in December 2011.
In terms of formal power, she was elected to the Supreme People’s Assembly at some point after 2014. In November of that year, she appeared with her brother and her presumptive tutor, the senior propagandist Kim Ki-nam, at the Sinchon massacre museum. As that museum underwent a major overhaul and modernisation in 2015, she was designated as a vice-chair of the Propaganda and Agitation Department. At last year’s outsize seventh party congress, she was passed over for promotion to the Politburo, but did gain a seat on the party’s Central Committee. Kim Yo-jong has never appeared alongside her brother at his many reviews ofmilitary drills or missile launches outside Pyongyang.
Her path thus far resembles that not of her aunt Kim Kyong-hui, the last woman of the Kim dynasty so near the epicentre of power, but of her father. Kim Jong-il used propaganda and the arts to gain bureaucratic and management experience in his late 20s and early 30s, at nearly precisely the same age as his daughter. Accordingly, at last April’s “Day of the Sun” parade, Kim Yo-jong was seen providing her brother with a large book including information about the various groups passing by the stage on Kim Il Sung Square, indicating her ability to manage parades at the very least. With the elevation of the operatically fluent cultural bureaucrat Choe Hwi and the Moranbong Band leader Hyon Song-wol, Kim Yo-jong’s ascent means the party is infusing more new blood and energy into the propaganda and the arts.
They are tasked with updating a basically unchanged narrative of genius and idolisation of the leader. Given that so much of the propaganda is now being transmitted via smartphones, tablets, and desktop computers, Kim Yo-jong’s role in the modernisation of the apparatus is consequential.
Some have seen her as the regime’s backup plan in the event that Kim Jong-un is incapacitated and, yet again, no fundamental alterations are made to the country’s many systems which are predicated on deification of a ruler from the so-called Paektu bloodline. The single hint that I have been able to locate which directly speaks to this possibility occurred in January 2015, when Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of the party’s Central Committee, reported on newly discovered “slogan trees” in Ryanggang province near the Chinese border. These trees were supposedly carved in the 1930s, but in fact were a propaganda method invented by Kim Jong-il to build upon his father’s legend. Amid some of the standard praise of Kim Il-sung, the slogans stated that Koreans should “follow the female anti-Japanese general” but did not specify Kim Jong-suk, the putative anti-Japanese guerilla fighter.
In the event that Kim Jong-un suffers from either assassination or health difficulties (recall his long absence in October 2014), his younger brother, Kim Jong-chol, is working quietly away in the regime and would be far more likely to serve this role. Citing the presence of this lesser-known Kim brother, Christopher Green, the senior adviser for the Korean peninsula at the International Crisis Group, pushed back against the speculation that Kim Yo-jong was second in line for succession. “Indeed, she is so prominent because she has no chance of taking over from her brother, [and] if she was a risk factor for the ruler, she’d be either kept out of the public eye or sent abroad,” Green said.
Whether she is the successor or not is an academic point. It is hard to imagine how she appears to the White House, where Trump’s mind is such a sieve that it is hard to know what he will retain about Kim Yo-jong. But if she can be forgotten by the US chief executive, she can no longer be overlooked by North Koreans whose maintenance of their jobs and very lives depend on protecting the Kim family from foreign plots and internal discontent.
Adam Cathcart is lecturer in Chinese history at the University of Leeds