Who is Kim Yo Jong?

Politics /

Kim Yo Jong is the younger sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Her father was Kim Jong Il, the country’s former Supreme Leader, while her grandfather was Kim Il Sung, the “eternal president” and founder of the nation.

Miss Kim’s face appeared on televisions around the world at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Below the 38th parallel, the woman met South Korean President Moon Jae In and was photographed together with American Vice President Mike Pence. On this occasion, Yo Jong took the place of her brother, who is believed to be the architect of the Hermit Kingdom’s communications strategy, both at home and abroad.

Over the years Kim’s sister has climbed up several positions within the North Korean political system, becoming a senior Central Committee official (March 2014), director of the Party’s Agitation and Propaganda Department (July 2015) and an alternate member of the Politburo (2017). According to rumors, Kim Yo Jong also holds an unspecified vice-ministerial position.

It is difficult to reconstruct Kim Yo Jong’s life, as it is shrouded in an aura of mystery just like all members of the Kim family. Her official biography intertwines myths and legends worthy of the best hagiographies. Voices and news inflated by propaganda make the story of Miss Kim’s life a real puzzle.

First of all, we do not know for certain her date of birth. In the most widespread version — that of South Korean intelligence — it is assumed that she may have been born in Pyongyang on September 26, 1987; other sources speak of 1988 while still others — including the US Treasury Department — of 1989.

According to the Washington Post’s Beijing Bureau Chief Anna Fifield, Miss Kim spent her childhood in a golden prison together with the future President Kim Jong Un, and their other brother, Kim Jong Chol, far away from the famine that was hitting North Korea in those years. The three live isolated from the rest of the world between a compound in Pyongyang and the seaside resort of Wonsan, without friends and without any contact with their now deceased half-brother Kim Jong Nam.

Once grown, Yo Jong was always with her older brothers and flew to Switzerland for her studies. In the heart of Europe, in the Swiss city of Bern, she attended the Liebefeld-Steinholzli primary school under the pseudonym Pak Mi Hyang. Kenji Fujimoto, a Japanese chef who has worked for years for the Kim family, revealed that in those years Kim Jong Il used to call his daughter “sweet Yo Jong” or even “princess Yo Jong.”

Yo Jong may have stayed in Switzerland from 1996 to 2000. Here, too, there is a discrepancy on the return date to Pyongyang, as some sources place her return home in 2001, after Yo Jong’s completion of the first grade. We don’t know anything about her high school days.

In 2002 Yo Jong’s father Kim Jong Il proudly declared to the foreign media that his youngest daughter was very interested in politics and that she dreamed of a career in the political system of North Korea.

In any case, returning to the formative years of Kim’s sister, Yo Jong would seem to have completed specialized study courses at Kim Il Sung University, also in Pyongyang, where she likely attended the computer science faculty. In 2007 she is believed to have obtained her degree in computer science and, in that same year, she also joined the Korean Workers Party.

In another version, Yo Jong returned to Europe in 2004 to complete university courses after the death of her mother Kim Yong Hui.

Thus began the climb of Miss Kim: first as a close collaborator of her father, then  as Kim Jong Un’s right arm. In 2011, with the death of Kim Jong Il, she would help plan Jong Un’s rise to the position of supreme leader.

From here on, Yo Jong appeared more and more often alongside her older brother, so much so that various media nicknamed her “North Korean Ivanka” for the influence she has on Kim, similar to the influence Ivanka Trump has on her father Donald.

Little or nothing is known of Yo Jong’s private life. According to some sources, she is married to the son of Choe Ryong Hae, secretary of the North Korean party and the two have a baby. However, there are those who claim that Yo Jong is unmarried and those who also tell of an alleged love story between Kim’s sister and a bodyguard. The indiscretion has obviously not been confirmed or denied.

Yo Jong’s first public appearance in North Korean media dates back to the end of 2011, on the occasion of Kim Jong Il’s funeral. From then on she would take care of protecting and promoting the image of her brother. Her goal? Make Kim Jong Un show up in the eyes of public opinion as a strong leader who ensures that everything within the country works smoothly.

Yo Jong is increasingly gaining political weight within the North Korean system. It is she who accompanied her brother for the two historic summits between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump. And she is always the one to attend as North Korea’s representative in Pyeongchang for the Winter Olympics.

In March of 2020, the North Korean media reported Yo Jong’s first public statements. In that circumstance,  in reference to the protests in Seoul following a military exercise carried out by Pyongyang, Miss Kim called South Korea “a scared barking dog.”

Just a few days later, Yo Jong publicly praised Trump for a letter sent by the White House to her brother. In the letter the Donald expressed two concepts: the hope that North Korea and the United States would maintain good relations and possible American aid to North Korea to counter the COVID-19 pandemic.

The mysterious health conditions of Kim Jong Un have prompted some analysts to speculate that the passage of power from the current president to Yo Jong could be possible. Opinions are conflicting. In the event of the death of the current leader, the younger sister could be one of the replacements, even if this hypothesis is not obvious.

 

Experts are divided. For Youngshik Bong, a researcher at the North Korean Institute of Studies at Yonsei University in Seoul, “Kim Jong Un is clearly ready to allow his sister to become his alter ego.”

However, as Leonid Petrov of Sidney’s International College of Management says, “North Korea is a Confucian country where seniority and masculinity are respected.” So “Kim Yo Jong is Kim Jong Un’s most trusted ally, but nothing more.”

The director of the SOAS China Institute in London, Steve Tsang, is more doubtful: “It is not an impossible scenario but the North Korean establishment is very old-fashioned and above all very sexist, and having to serve a woman may not appeal to many of them.” Finally, for Robert Collins, who has been analyzing North Korea for more than 40 years, Kim Yo Jong would be a leader who would be feared and respected by all party officials.

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