North Korea slams the door on dialogue — for now
Is Kim Yo Jong North Korea's bridge to the future?
In the intentionally opaque and confusing world of North Korean leadership, Kim Jong Un's sister Kim Yo Jong stands out. Her official role has changed several times since her brother took power in 2011, but her influence and importance have only expanded during that time. North Korea has never been an absolute dictatorship, a country ruled by the whim of a single leader, despite the vast power of the Kim dynasty. Kim Yo Jong's prominent position reflects an evolution of the role of the leading "Kim," and the ongoing demographic transition of North Korean leadership.
Kim Yo Jong has flirted with prominence several times. She initially sparked interest in the final days of Kim Jong Il, where she was reportedly seen accompanying her ailing father on some of his inspection tours. Following his death, she was shown in state media images standing quietly behind Kim Jong Un at the viewing. Each appearance raised speculation about her identity and role, and by late 2012 it was assumed that she had received a formal position in the regime hierarchy focused on propaganda and culture.
It was also assumed she was behind the-then notorious concert in Pyongyang that prominently featured Mickey Mouse on stage. In the same year, she was seen on state media skipping and laughing while Kim Jong Un toured a newly opened amusement park, a performance that abroad earned her the epithet "erratic."
With the execution of Kim Jong Un's uncle Jang Song Thaek in 2013, Kim Yo Jong's role as confidante surged. Jang, the husband of Kim Jong Il's sister, Kim Kyong Hui, had been appointed a mentor by the elder Kim to smooth the transition to Kim Jong Un. But Jang reportedly retained close ties with China, perhaps too close for the comfort of Kim Jong Un. There were rumors Jang plotting to usurp Kim Jong Un, perhaps via the appointment of Kim's older half-brother, Kim Jong Nam (who was later dramatically killed in Malaysia). Kim Kyong Hui had served as an adviser to Kim Jong Il, and to Kim Jong Un, and Jang's death opened the way for Kim Yo Jong.
When Kim Jong Un disappeared for weeks in 2014, triggering speculation of illness, death or a coup, it was Kim Yo Jong who served as the primary liaison between her brother and the rest of the regime, effectively serving as proxy leader. She played a similar role this year during another extended absence by Kim Jong Un. Her access and connection to the young leader are surpassed perhaps only by his wife, Ri Sol Ju. But Kim Yo Jong's role as interlocutor with the rest of the regime far exceeds the power of Ri, or for that matter that of Kim Kyong Hui during her heyday.
Kim Yo Jong was instrumental in facilitating the inter-Korean summit between Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae In after she visited South Korea for the 2018 Winter Olympics. She played a critical role at the summits between Kim Jong Un and President Trump, drawing particular attention when she followed her brother around with an ashtray (seen as an act of deference) and when she replaced a signing pen on the table (seen as a sign of order and control).
Yet, despite her role as interlocutor for international summits, she was also more recently given the role of ending cooperation with South Korea, and announcing the imminent destruction of the Liaison Office in Kaesong. It was then given to her brother to walk back from the brink, declaring a pause in potential military action that she had announced just days earlier. The back and forth between the two Kims, sometimes cooperatively, sometimes apparently contradictory, fits North Korea's strategic pattern of ambiguity, but may also highlight a shift in how its leadership operates.
While not exactly a co-regent, Kim Yo Jong clearly plays a critical role in the North Korean leadership. She has spearheaded changing public propaganda about the leading family, easing back on many of the mythical assertions and instead portraying Kim Jong Un as a man who cares for his people, in part a reflection of his avuncular Grandfather, in part a more human and modern world leader (including Ri Sol Ju's more prominent role as first lady and Kim's public admissions of failure and concern). By working collaboratively, this has strengthened the Kims as a real dynasty and allowed them to take more risks domestically.
It has also reflected a generational change in North Korea. While Kim Jong Un still relies on many members of the first- and second-generation North Korean leadership, he and Kim Yo Jong represent a dramatic break in that lineage. They have sought to empower and inculcate a youth-oriented culture in North Korea, one more open to capitalism (within limits), to modern ideas and even to the managed introduction and exploitation of foreign technologies and capacities.
Together, Kim Yo Jong and Kim Jong Un represent a potential bridge to a different North Korea, one still controlled from the top, but perhaps not as isolated. This does not mean there is any interest in doing away with North Korea's nuclear weapons and missiles; those are seen as vital to preserve national independence through any transition, and strength is a multifaceted concept, with economic development alone insufficient. There is no rapid change impending in Pyongyang, no easy move to follow a Chinese or Vietnamese path. But with two foreign-trained and relatively young voices leading North Korea, there may be a willingness to experiment more, not just in retaining the military-first focus of Kim Jong Il, but in economic and social dynamics for a new generation.
Rodger Baker is senior vice president of strategic analysis with Stratfor, a RANE Company.