SEOUL, Feb 9 — North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s increasingly influential sister has become one of his closest confidantes in a country where power has always been a family affair.
Kim Yo-jong made history today as the first member of the North’s ruling dynasty to set foot in the South since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War. The two sides technically remain at war since the conflict ended with a ceasefire rather than a peace treaty.
Believed to be aged 30, Yo-jong is one of three children born to Kim’s predecessor Kim Jong-il and his third known partner, former dancer Ko Yong-hui, making her a full sister of Kim Jong-un — and like him, she was educated in Switzerland.
Her existence was barely known to the wider world until their father’s funeral, when she was seen standing right behind her brother on state television, looking tearful and ashen-faced.
But she was rapidly ushered up the ladder after Kim Jong-un took the helm and is now one of the most powerful women in the isolated regime.
“She is one of a very few people who can talk freely about anything with the leader Kim,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korea Studies in Seoul.
“She must have far bigger capacity than any other North Korean official when it comes to decision-making and policy coordination with the leader,” he said, adding she is fluent in English and French.
Her brother is grooming her for higher authority, analysts say, and she will make her debut on the international diplomatic stage today as part of the North’s diplomatic delegation to the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.
Yo-jong is currently an alternate member of the political bureau of the party’s powerful central committee, and deeply involved in the party’s propaganda operations — an important role.
Women are a rarity in the top political echelons of the deeply patriarchal North, but Kim family members are a prominent exception.
Kim Kyong-hui, the aunt of the current leader, was a four-star general and a senior member of the party before her husband Jang Song-thaek was executed for treason in 2013 and she disappeared from public view.
But Yo-jong has risen to greater authority far more quickly than her once powerful aunt, said Cheong Seong-chang, analyst at the Sejong Institute think tank.
She was elected as a member of the Supreme People’s Assembly — the country’s rubberstamp parliament — at the age of just 27, almost two decades earlier than her aunt’s 44.
The formal leader of the North’s high-level delegation to the Winter Olympics is the ceremonial head of state, Kim Yong-nam.
“But Kim Yo-jong will serve as the de facto head of the delegation,” said Cheong.
Dovish South Korean President Moon Jae-in, who advocates dialogue with the North to ease tensions, is due to have lunch with Yo-jong and other delegates tomorrow — when analysts expect her to deliver a personal message from her brother.
But not all are pleased with her visit.
Moon’s push to use the South’s Winter Olympics as a door to open dialogue with the North has drawn criticism from some who accuse Pyongyang of seeking to “hijack” the global spotlight on the Games.
“By sending Kim Yo-jong, Kim Jong-un may be putting the final touches on this plan,” the South’s top-selling, conservative Chosun daily said in an editorial yesterday. — AFP