Every few months some enterprising journalist creates a story claiming that North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un is dead. He heard the news from a friend who has a friend high up in South Korean intelligence circles who’s in the know. It’s all very journalistic, you see.
In truth, rumors of Kim’s death are nothing new and after he dies, there will be rumors that he’s alive for years afterward. The news abhors a vacuum and North Korea is a black hole for information.
But the news out of North Korea is that Kim’s ravenously ambitious sister, Kim Yo-jong, has apparently been elevated to a top party post that ensures the loyalty of the Organization and Guidance Department (OGD) of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party (WPK). In a Communist country, the longer the job title, the more important it is. Ms. Kim appears to be either taking some of the burden of leadership off of her brother or is grasping for power on her own.
Kim Yo Jong has for years been a trusted aide and confidante to her brother. She previously served as one of North Korea’s top propagandists and is now an alternate to the Politburo — the senior body of North Korea’s ruling party.
While North Korea and the ruling Workers’ Party often do not publicly proclaim leadership changes, experts and analysts had speculated previously that Kim may have been put in charge of the Organization and Guidance Department earlier this year, based on her increasing portfolio of responsibilities. Jeong, the South Korean defense minister, said Kim now appears to also have an important role in shaping policy toward South Korea and the United States.
Rumors of the supreme leader’s demise surface every few months because Kim disappears for long periods of time with no explanation. It could be that Kim likes his 12-year-old scotch and painted ladies and goes on binges at times. Or he could be trying to avoid the coronavirus. Or it may be he’s afraid of assassins.
But his sister is something of a mystery woman as well. She, too, has been absent from the spotlight when she was expected to make an appearance.
It’s not clear if her apparent disappearance is tied to her work earlier this summer, when she oversaw the destruction of an office used for dialogue between the two Koreas. The bombastic statement was believed to be in response to defectors sending anti-North Korean propaganda from inside of South Korea into North Korean territory.
Several experts believe Kim Yo Jong’s rising profile has been part of a carefully choreographed publicity campaign by North Korean state media to signal that she’s being groomed for something, but have been loath to connect her rising role to any speculation about Kim Jong Un’s demise.
Leader Kim has been known to off rivals for his throne. He murdered his own uncle in reportedly gruesome fashion after he took power, and his half-brother was killed at an airport in Malaysia in 2017. I doubt whether Ms. Kim feels very secure, no matter what her position.
But still, it’s better to rule in hell than be a slave in heaven…or something. Kim’s sister might be walking on eggshells around her brother, but doesn’t let it interfere with the performance of her duties.
In sickness or health, for better or worse, the world is stuck with Kim Jong-un until they remove him from his seat of power, feet first. Kim Yo-jong is just going to have to wait her turn.