SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — What has happened to Kim Yo Jong, the North Korean leader’s influential sister?
That is a question many who watch the cloistered, nuclear-armed country are wondering after she failed to appear in leader Kim Jong Un’s newly released lineup for the country’s powerful Politburo in recent days.
Some say Kim Jong Un may have demoted his sister over general policy failures. Others, however, believe he could be worried about her rapid rise and increasingly high profile as he tries to bolster his domestic authority in the face of growing economic challenges.
Rumors that Kim Yo Jong is her brother’s heir apparent could be dangerous because they “raise the issue of Kim’s hold on power and health inside North Korea,” said Oh Gyeong-seob, an analyst at Seoul’s Korea Institute for National Unification. This, he said, is why Kim Jong Un is slowing down her rise in power.
The development is a surprise because Kim Yo Jong, who became an alternate member of the Politburo last year, was widely expected to receive a full bureau membership during a ruling Workers’ Party congress that ended Tuesday. A Politburo membership is viewed as crucial for high-level officials hoping to thrive in Kim Jong Un’s government because he has made key decisions at bureau meetings, including the 2013 move to execute his powerful uncle, Jang Song Taek.
When the eight-day congress, the first of its kind since 2016, opened last week, Kim Yo Jong, who is thought to be about 32, sat on the leadership podium, standing out amid the often elderly, overwhelmingly male party cadres. But when the congress on Monday announced a list of 30 alternate and full members of the Politburo, including the 37-year-old Kim Jong Un, her name wasn’t there.
Kim Yo Jong has not been purged or forced to quit politics, a fate that some officials have met under Kim Jong Un, and she still retains her membership in the party’s Central Committee, also a high-level body. But when she released a statement criticizing South Korea on Wednesday, state media identified her as a “vice department director” of the party, a lower rank than her previous title of “first vice department director.”
“The congress’ purpose is to solidify Kim Jong Un’s leadership. If Kim Yo Jong had become a full Politburo member, all eyes would have been on her ... and Kim Jong Un likely felt that as a burden,” Ko Young-hwan, a former deputy head of the Institute for National Security Strategy, a think tank run by South Korea’s espionage agency, said during a TV news program Monday.