The shrill attacks against South Korea and the United States that have made international headlines for North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s younger sister are viewed inside the country as evidence of her arrogance and inexperience, government officials told RFA.
Kim Yo Jong, believed to be 33, has made a name for herself in recent years for her comments in state media that lob crude insults at Seoul, Washington and refugees from her family’s regime.
Some of her greatest hits include calling people who escape from North Korea “mongrel dogs” and “human scum,” warning the Biden Administration not to “cause a stink in its first step,” and calling South Korean President Moon Jae-in “a parrot raised by America.”
In her most recent statements, Kim offered a yellow light on President Moon’s speech at the U.N. General Assembly this week calling on North Korea, the U.S. and China to officially end the Korean War, saying it was “admirable” but setting conditions for formally ending the 1950-53 conflict.
"What needs to be dropped is the double-dealing attitudes, illogical prejudice, bad habits and hostile stand of justifying their own acts while faulting our just exercise of the right to self-defense," she said in a statement.
"Only when such a precondition is met, would it be possible to sit face to face and declare the significant termination of war,” Kim Yo Jong said.
Although public dissent is scarce and heavily punished, North Koreans grumble regularly in interviews with RFA about their economic plight, corruption, and incessant government demands for labor and cash.
Many North Koreans, including some government officials, are not fans of Kim Yo Jong, either.
“The people don’t think too highly of Kim Yo Jong because she always shows up and spits out harsh words at every important occasion in foreign relations,” an official in the northern province of Ryanggang told RFA’s Korean Service.
Since her brother’s rule began in 2011, Kim Yo Jong’s rise to power in her own right led to her becoming an alternate member of the Politburo in October 2017.
‘Truly weird group’
She was introduced on the international stage when, as part of a North Korean delegation to the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, she was seated near then U.S. Vice President Mike Pence during the opening ceremony.
International media took notice of the seating arrangement and widely published video and images of Kim and Pence, but they did not exchange words.
She spent a year away from the politburo starting in April 2019 but was reinstated in April 2020. At the time, her brother was rumored to be having health issues and some experts believed she could have been an option to replace him if he were to die.
But she was demoted during the ruling Korean Workers’ Party’s Eighth Party Congress in January, becoming a regular member of the Party’s Central Committee, with her rank reduced from first deputy director to deputy director.
Though she is now only one of many deputy directors of the Central Party’s Propaganda and Agitation Department, Kim Yo Jong’s statements on inter-Korean and North Korea-U.S. relations still boost her public profile, said the Ryanggang official.
“Kim Yo Jong serves as a calculated spokesperson to reveal Kim Jong Un’s position and views, and by speaking out bitter statements about foreign relations, especially about North-South relations, she is internally acting to specifically emphasize that she is the sister of Kim Jong Un,” said the source.
In June of last year, one day after North Korea blew up an inter-Korean liaison office within its territory, Kim Yo Jong responded to a speech made two days earlier by South Korea’s Moon, calling it “sophism full of shamelessness and impudence.”
“Then, who has professed blind and dumb to our advices to adopt attitude and stand of a master responsible for the north-south relations and thrown away trust and promise just like a pair of old shoes?” she said.
In January, she referred to the South Korean government as a “truly weird group hard to understand,” after Seoul’s joint chiefs of staff revealed that North Korea had held a midnight military parade at the opening of the eighth congress of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party.
“They are the idiot and top the world's list in misbehavior as they are only keen on things provoking world laughter,” said Kim Yo Jong.
‘No achievements or experience’
RFA reported in May that government officials were scared to be in her presence because rumors that she had officials executed for getting on her nerves had spread.
“Perhaps because deputy director Kim is still young, it seems that she doesn’t know when to hold her tongue, and she also lacks humility,” the Ryanggang official said.
“Officials often say at private gatherings, ‘I hope that Kim Yo Jong doesn’t show up here and there and act up,’” said the source.
Another source, an official in the northeastern province of North Hamgyong, told RFA that Kim Yo Jong’s lofty position would be impossible if not for her proximity to her brother, and noted that although their father also put his sister in a position of power, she actually deserved it.
“Kim Jong Il put his only sister Kim Kyong Hui on the Politburo, but that wasn’t until 2010 when she was over 60, and long after she had loyally helped him for a very long time,” said the second source.
“Kim Jong Un hastily promoted Kim Yo Jong when she was in her late 20s when she had no achievements or experience… This is so different from what his father did,” said the North Hamgyong official.
Another contrast between the two situations, is that Kim Yo Jong is very visible to the North Korean public, whereas her aunt mostly stayed out of headlines.
“Kim Kyong Hui did not reveal herself often and quietly assisted Kim Jong Il… but Kim Yo Jong is not like that. No matter how important her work is, it does not look good to the general public that she shows up here and there and acts lightly,” said the second source.
Kim Jong Un lived abroad in his childhood and does not have many people he can absolutely trust within the regime, according to the second source.
“It seems he thinks that the only person he can trust is his sister. But it goes against the party’s ideology and principles that prohibit nepotism,” said the second source.
Still in office after gaffes
The second source said that Kim Yo Jong’s recent demotion might have been a punishment from her brother.
“He may have felt at that time that it was not good for his sister to show off everywhere…but she still remains in power,” said the second source.
Hosting the Kim siblings is a nerve-wracking experience for government officials, the source said.
“High-ranking officials are always anxious and feel like they are walking on thin ice when they are around Kim Jong Un. They feel like they have to read his mind. How stressful it must be to have to be careful around Kim Yo Jong as well, because she’s always hovering around him,” said the second source.
Experts remain divided on the possibility of Kim Yo Jong becoming the country’s ruler if her brother dies. Some say that her increased exposure in recent years is a clear indication that she is next in line.
“In my view, Kim Jong Un had made the decision to make Kim Yo Jung his successor,” Joseph Detrani, former US Special Envoy for Six Party Talks with North Korea, told RFA.
“Keeping the leadership in the Kim family is important for Kim Jung Un and it would resonate with the people and senior leaders in the North. Some may view her, if Kim Jong Un were to pass suddenly, as too inexperienced, but being part of the Kim family would address those concerns,” Detrani said.
Soo Kim of the RAND Corporation told RFA that true extent of her influence “remains largely speculative” despite her growing presence on the scene.
“We can assume that since she remains in the leadership, has been seen in public during high-profile events, and serves from time to time as her brother’s mouthpiece, Kim Yo Jong maintains potential in the regime’s leadership,” (->.)
Kim Yo Jong’s recent demotion was taken by some as an indication that she is not the successor, but her influence does not appear to have changed, according to Su Mi Terry of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).
“In terms of succession, I still think that she's somebody that is most likely to succeed, even though you can’t say that for sure because they don't really have a succession plan,” Terry told RFA.
“Given that their focus is so much on this blood line, I do think that she's definitely the most likely contender if something were to happen to Kim Jong Un,” Terry said.
The lack of a named successor could cause major problems for the regime, Ken Gause of the Virginia-based CNA thinktank told RFA.
“There would probably be some sort of collective leadership in which Kim Yo Jung would be part of that, representing the Kim family equities behind the scenes, but it's no guarantee that she would be able to step in and take over for him,” said Gause.
“It will really depend on the power dynamics at the time that he becomes incapacitated or dies that will determine who will rise to the top,” Gause said.
Reported by Chang Gyu Ahn and Sangmin Lee. Translated by Jinha Shin. Written in English by Eugene Whong.