As negotiations with the United States gained traction, Ms. Kim accompanied her brother to the summits in Singapore and Hanoi, appearing to serve as his second in command. In Singapore, she could be spotted lurking in the background behind Kim Jong-un, away from media attention but always keeping a watchful eye on her brother’s schedule. Ms. Kim’s role is unique in that she is expected to take care of not only administrative planning, but also little details that are easy to overlook.
For instance, in Hanoi Ms. Kim was spotted collecting cigarette butts from Kim Jong-un, a seemingly menial task, though it’s actually an action that holds special significance. Part of Ms. Kim’s role as a high-ranking member of her brother’s secretariat means making sure that none of the objects he encounters leaves a trace of DNA that could provide anyone the slightest insight into his health.
Ties to Illicit Finance:
Ms. Kim has numerous ties to Office 38 & 39, from reportedly being married to someone linked to the office, to running components of the office in conjunction with her sister, Kim Sol-song. In a recent interview for this publication, Ken Gause, Research Program Director at the Adversary Analytics Program at the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA), revealed that by being in a position of power in the Kim family, Ms. Kim inadvertently has ties to the highest level of power in the nation’s financial institutions. While the extent of her role in maintaining the office is not known, it is likely that due to her position in managing the Kim family, she plays some part in overseeing international transactions that directly relate to the slush funds financing their regime. By some accounts from interviews conducted in Gause’s House of Cards, Ms. Kim’s role includes controlling a major investment portfolio that her aunt, Kim Kyong-Hui, used to run. Gause’s research also indicates that she may be responsible for paying back some of the debt incurred in Department 54 when it was run by Jang Song-thaek after the department was dissolved into Office 39.
According to a special report run by NHK in 2012, Kim Jong-il considered Ms. Kim as a potential successor to his position. This claim is corroborated by Konstantin Pulikovsky, a Russian official who accompanied Kim Jong-il during his 2001 trip to Moscow, during which he claims Jong-il told him “‘Of my children, Jong-un and Yo-jong have expressed an interest in politics and I am planning on educating and choosing one of them as my successor.’” Pulikovsky also notes that when asked about successors, Kim Jong-il referred to his sons as “idle blockheads” and praised the intelligence and political understanding of his daughters.
Moreover, Ms. Kim has a history of stepping up when Kim Jong-un has been unable to properly serve as a leader. During Kim Jong-un’s string of health problems in 2014, she was reported to have spent much time supporting him at his bedside along with his wife, Ri Sol-ju. Additionally, JoongAng Ilbo reported that officials in the intelligence community believed that Kim Yo-jong was being groomed as a successor in the case that Jong-un’s condition took a turn for the worse. In an interview for this report, Dr. Alexandre Mansourov, Adjunct Professor at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, noted that upon arriving in Singapore for the 2018 summit, Kim Jong-un and Kim Yo-jong were on different planes. Such an approach may indicate that should anything have happened to Kim Jong-un during his flight, there would be at least one more high-ranking Kim family member that could step up to the plate in the case of his untimely death.
However, it’s important to note that some experts believe Ms. Kim’s rise to power doesn’t necessarily amount to a place in the line of succession. They point to patterns between Ms. Kim and her aunt, Kim Kyong-hui, suggesting that while women can take an important role in running the country, the position of Supreme Leader may yet be out of reach.
Although succession rumors cannot be confirmed with any confidence, it is clear that Ms. Kim plays an important role within the political infrastructure of North Korea and holds a unique set of qualities that would make her a good candidate. However, the qualities that make her a good candidate for the line of succession are the very same ones that could put her in danger should a younger successor eventually take Kim Jong-Un’s place.
Recently, Ms. Kim has ascended to a more important political role, issuing orders to all-female units in the Korean People’s Army (KPA) and recommendations to improve the military’s livestock industry. These actions likely indicate another rise in stature, making Ms. Kim an important political entity in her own right. Though there have been rumors of her dismissal from the politburo, even if such a dismissal were to occur, Ms. Kim’s ability to issue commands on her own indicate that she plays an increasingly powerful role in the DPRK’s leadership structure.
Ms. Kim serves as an important intermediary between the newer generation of appointees to the administration made by Kim Jong-un and the older members of her father’s administration. She is an experienced bureaucrat, having accumulated reach and power throughout different factions of the government. She was likely mentored by figures like Kim Ki-nam, Kim Kyong-hui—and by her half-sister Kim Sol-song—so she understands the internal workings of North Korea’s government.
Kim Yo-jong is surely a figure of prominence that must be watched in the years to come. She has demonstrated intelligence, an advanced understanding of how image-building works and the capacity to make important connections with leaders throughout the international community. Because of her ties to the old administration and the trust that Kim Jong-un confides in her, it should not serve as a surprise if she continues to rise to some of the highest ranks in the North Korean political sphere.
Harry J. Kazianis (@Grecianformula) serves as Senior Director of Korean Studies at the Center for the National Interest. John Grover (@JohnDaleGrover) is a Korean Studies Fellow at the Center. Adriana Nazarko recently served as a Korean Studies Summer Research Assistant (a special note of thanks for her many hours of additional research on this project).