North Korean Leader’s Sister Retains Power Despite Formal ‘Demotion’

Kim Yo Jong is no longer in the Workers’ Party’s Politburo, but she still lobs insults at Seoul through state media.
Eugene Whong
North Korean Leader’s Sister Retains Power Despite Formal ‘Demotion’ Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un attends wreath laying ceremony at Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi, Vietnam March 2, 2019.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong has been assigned a new title and removed from the country’s highest decision-making body, but after she called out South Korea in an insult-laden tirade this week, experts said her relative power remains intact in the dynastic regime. 

State media reported a series of promotions, demotions and reassignments that happened over the weekend during a rare congress of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party, and Kim was left out of the party’s Politburo and assigned a lower rank.

She went from “First Vice Department Director” of to simply “Vice Department Director” of the Central Committee of the Party.

International media immediately picked up on the change, and observers began to speculate whether the woman once considered by South Korean intelligence to be North Korea’s second in command had fallen from grace.

The demotion may have been over a series of harsh verbal attacks on Seoul and North Koreans who fled to the South that she had made over the summer, Lee Inbae, director for the South Korea-based Institute for Cooperative Security told RFA’s Korean Service in a previous report.

But two days after the apparent demotion, she returned to form, issuing yet another provocative statement in state media, calling the South Korean government “a truly weird group” and “the idiot and top the world's list in misbehavior,” after the South’s military monitored a military parade during the congress.

International media reports said the most recent colorful outburst cast a veil of uncertainty on what her reassignment signified.

Ken Gause of the Virginia-based CNA think tank said the outburst is evidence that Kim Yo Jong will remain a powerful force in her brother’s inner circle.

“Well, I think the fact that she made the statement shows there has been no demotion in her position. You cannot judge the Kim family by their formal portfolios. So, the fact that she's on the Politburo, not on the Politburo, doesn't really matter,” Gause told RFA.

“I don't think she's being punished for anything like that… This really kind of shows the world that no, she's still a major player,” he said.

Media Spotlight

Kim Yo Jong first became an officially recognized public figure by state media in March 2014 when she was introduced as a “senior official of the Central Committee.” In November of that year, she became First Vice Department Director of the Propaganda and Agitation Department.

In 2017 she became an alternate member of the Politburo, the second woman ever to hold a position on the policy-making body, after her aunt Kim Kyong Hui. In 2018 she appeared to be acting as her brother’s special envoy, travelling to South Korea for the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

Pictures of her seated near U.S. Vice President Mike Pence during the opening ceremony of the Olympics were prominently featured in international media.

In this Feb. 9, 2018 file photo, Kim Yo Jong, top right, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, sits alongside North Korea's nominal head of state Kim Yong Nam, and behind U.S. Vice President Mike Pence as she watches the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. AP

She then accompanied her brother as part of his entourage during the U.S.-North Korea Summits in Singapore in 2018 and Hanoi in 2019.

At the end of 2019 she was appointed First Vice Department Director of the Central Committee of the Party and issued her first public statement in March 2020, saying the South Korean presidential office had an “imbecile way of thinking” for denouncing a North Korean weapons test.

When her brother’s prolonged absence in April caused speculation that he might be seriously ill, many predicted that she would assume leadership of the country in the event of his death.

Under her leadership inter-Korean relations ruptured in June when North Korea cut off all communication with the South and destroyed a Seoul-funded joint Korean liaison office inside the North in response to South Korean civic groups launching propaganda leaflets by balloon into North Korean territory.

Prior to the building’s destruction, Kim Yo Jong hinted in a statement that Pyongyang would retaliate for “such an act of evil intention,” and called the leaflet launchers, many of whom are North Korean escapees who resettled in South Korea, “human scum short of wild animals,” and “mongrel dogs.”

In another June statement, she characterized a speech by South Korean President Moon Jae-in commemorating two decades of inter-Korean relations as “a string of shameless and impudent words full of incoherence.” 

But after July statements from Kim Yo Jong all but disappeared from state media, until she returned with quip aimed at South Korea’s foreign minister in December that was relatively mild by her standards.

Yet ahead of the party congress in January, South Korea’s National Intelligence Service predicted she would be promoted to a higher rank given that she had such a prominent role in North Korean affairs over the previous year.

It is possible that her removal from the Politburo is the result of a structural or organizational change, Seoul-based NK News reported, citing an expert who said none in the new Politburo held the rank of first vice director or vice director.

The NK News report also noted that the congress reintroduced the secretariat, “a high-profile party organ that existed during the Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il era.”

“This time around, the secretariat did not include anyone in charge of inter-Korean or foreign affairs,” the report said.

Additionally, the apparent demotion could be in preparation for a possible promotion as new appointments are scheduled for a Jan. 17 meeting of the Supreme People’s Assembly.

Gause said Kim Yo Jong’s power flows from “the fact that she is within the Kim family and that Kim Jong Un has decided to use her as a way of voicing his views out to the world.”

Additional reporting by Heejung Yang and Seung Wook Hong for RFA's Korean Service. Translated by Leejin Jun. 

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