Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korea’s “Supreme Leader” – a young, energetic, and frankly, very good looking woman – has seemingly become one of the most trusted members of the North Korean inner circle and as a result, attracted much attention overseas.
She was recently charged with such important missions as, say, a February visit to South Korea where she delivered important diplomatic messages which in due time made possible both the inter-Korean summit at Panmunjom, and, ultimately, the Kim-Trump summit in Singapore.
Kim Yo Jong’s charm has won her a lot of admirers. However, her fans do not realize that her emergence is just another manifestation of an established pattern every historian of North Korea should be familiar with.
Indeed, over the last seventy years, we have seen that virtually every ruler of the Kim family in the early years of his rule relied on a brother or sister who acted as one of the leader’s most reliable lieutenants, often charged with the most important missions.
So far, all such royal brothers and sisters have ended badly: they could not survive the eventual emergence of the next generation successors, that is, the children of the incumbent leader (and their own nephews).
Our story should begin with Kim Yong Ju, the younger brother of Kim Il Sung, born in 1920. Kim Yong Ju appeared at the top of the Pyongyang power hierarchy in the late 1950s and was soon made the head of the vital ‘Organization and Guidance Department’ of the WPK Central Committee.
Back then, Kim Yong Ju’s promotion raised eyebrows. The North Korean elite of the late 1950s consisted almost exclusively of the veterans of the North Korean underground communist movement and Manchurian guerrilla resistance. Against such a backdrop, Kim Yong Ju indeed looked strange, even suspicious.
His revolutionary credentials were doubtful and there were even persistent rumors (perhaps unfounded) that in the late 1930s, he had worked for the Japanese military as a clerk and translator – not a big thing in itself, but something which would not be seen as proper for a top official of the Korea’s Workers’ Party in the late 1950s.
So far, all such royal brothers and sisters have ended badly
Kim Il Sung’s decision to promote Kim Yong Ju was driven by a well-understandable political logic. Operating the faction-laden world of North Korea’s elite politics, Kim Il Sung understood that his brother, whose influence was determined only by family connection, would make the most reliable of all possible lieutenants. Kim Yong Ju had no reason to do anything that would damage Kim Il Sung’s interests because without him his fate would be sorry indeed.
At the same time, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Kim Il Sung could not yet rely on his children since his oldest son, Kim Jong Il, was still too young. His brother was the most logical choice, and Kim Yong Ju was trusted with many sensitive missions. The pinnacle of his career was his role as the chief negotiator at the first ever North-South direct high-level talks in 1972 (does it not remind you, dear reader, of Kim Yo Jong’s recent Seoul trip?)
However, Kim Yong Ju’s rise ended abruptly. In the early 1970s, Kim Jong Il was fast emerging as the heir-apparent. Again, the decision to use family succession was quite logical from Kim Il Sung’s point of view: he had seen what had happened to Stalin’s legacy in the Soviet Union within a few years of his death.
Later, in the early 1970s, Kim Il Sung saw what happened in China where Mao’s chosen successor, Lin Biao, could not wait until Mao’s natural death and attempted a coup which ended in disaster and Lin Biao’s untimely death.
Therefore, Kim Il Sung, in the early 1970s, understood that he needed a successor who would have neither reason nor the means to challenge his legacy. Understandably, his eldest son was the best or even the only available choice.
However, the promotion of Kim Jong Il left Kim Il Sung with a painful question: what to do with his brother, who, by that time had spent nearly fifteen years at the peak of political power? The ‘Kim Yong Ju issue’ was solved in the most decisive manner: in 1975 Kim Il Sung’s brother disappeared from public view, suddenly and completely.
At the time, it was widely believed that he had been purged and executed. Subsequent events, fortunately, demonstrated that these rumors were unfounded: in 1993, almost two decades after his disappearance, Kim Yong Ju reappeared in public.
In 1993 he was given the position of vice-speaker of the Supreme People’s Assembly, North Korea’s rubber-stamp parliament. This was, essentially, an honorary position: politically impotent but a respected sinecure. As far as we know, he is still alive, living in comfortable retirement.
It is not clear what Kim Yong Ju was doing between his disappearance in 1975 and his comeback in 1993, but according to the rumors, he spent these two decades in a rather comfortable exile in the countryside.
Such a soft way of dealing with a potentially dangerous relative was quite typical of Kim Jong Il: with all his shortcomings, Kim the second was a remarkably soft person, reluctant to send to the execution grounds people who he happened to know personally.
THE FATE OF UNCLE JANG
The fate of Kim Jong Il’s trusted siblings was very different.
As we know, Kim Jong Il had no surviving full brothers. His only brother died as a child in the 1940s, and all other brothers were born by Kim Il Sung’s second wife, and hence, were not seen as politically reliable. However, Kim Jong Il had a sister, Kim Kyong Hui, who, in her youth, married Jang Song Thaek, a man whose family not related to the Pyongyang elite.
According to the rumors – and yes, we are talking rumors which are not necessarily correct – this marriage happened against the will of Kim Il Sung. Initially, the same rumors tell us, the marriage was happy, but eventually relations between Kim Kyong Hui and Jang Song Thaek deteriorated.
But in Kim Jong Il’s inner circle, Jang Song Thaek played a role which was somewhat similar to the role once played by Kim Yong Ju under Kim Il Sung.
Even though Jang suffered some periods of disgrace when he was removed from the palace, mostly he was seen as a trusted member of Kim Jong Il’s inner circle, so when, around 2008, Kim Jong Il’s health began to deteriorate, Jang was promoted to the highest positions of power.
It appeared at the time that Jang Song Thaek, together with Kim Kyong Hui and the-then Chief of the General Staff Ri Yong Ho was part of the regents’ committee of a sort – a group of officials to assist and guide young Kim Jong Un in case of Kim Jong Il’s untimely death.
In a de facto absolute monarchy, a reigning sovereign has valid reasons to trust members of his family more than any outsider
As we know, Kim Jong Il indeed died suddenly in December 2011, and for the next year and a half, Kim Kyong Hui and Jang Song Thaek, both promoted to full (4-star) generals, acted as, essentially, second in command in the new North Korean chain of command.
Seemingly, Jang Song Thaek was instrumental in the purge of the dangerously popular leader of the military, Ri Yong Ho who was dismissed in July 2012. Jang provided political support for the subsequent purge of other potentially dangerous military commanders and was also trusted with supervising highly sensitive relations with China.
However, as time went by, Kim Jong Un obviously came to see his ambitious and increasingly arrogant uncle as a problem – like Kim Jong Il in the 1970s who saw Kim Yong Ju as a potential problem, too. The difference between the two cases was that Kim Jong Il, obviously acting with Kim Il Sung’s approval, had his potentially dangerous uncle removed in 1975, well before Kim Jong Il himself inherited power.
In the case of Kim Jong Un, the sudden death of the previous ruler meant that for a while Kim Jong Un had to coexist with Jang Song Thaek and, perhaps, even had to tolerate what Jang saw as fatherly advice and assistance, but what Kim Jong Un likely perceived as unnecessary meddling in policy matters.
The outcome was significantly more dramatic and bloody, as most of our readers surely know. In December 2013, Jang Song Thaek was arrested in front of cameras during a government meeting and dragged away. The Rodong Sinmun published lengthy diatribes against his alleged ‘criminal activities’ and also reported that Jang had faced a trial, was condemned to death and shot immediately. Kim Kyong Hui also disappeared from public view, and her fate remains unknown.
Nonetheless, in spite of Jang Song Thaek’s demise, the model still works – as we see from Kim Yo Jong’s rise. The logic is same: in a de facto absolute monarchy, a reigning sovereign has valid reasons to trust members of his family more than any outsider – of course, only those members who do not constitute a threat to his power. Thus, at the early stages of reign, when the would-be successor is still a child, the emergence of a powerful brother or sister is logical and expected. So far, we have not seen a single exception to this rule.
It is unclear, though, whether Kim Yo Jong will be able to keep her highly privileged position indefinitely. Her rise has been driven by the same logic as the rise of Kim Jong Ju in the 1950s and rise of Jang Song Thaek in the 1990s and 2000s, but she is bound to face the same challenge of an eventually emerging heir designate.
Kim Jong Un reportedly has two or three children. They are all of pre-school age, and it will probably take a couple of decades before they become old enough to be seen as fit for succession – or at least fit to be trained as would-be successors. When and if it happens, however, Kim Yo Jong will face the great risk of becoming redundant.
It is not quite clear, also, to what extent Kim Jong Un is close to his sister. Judging by what little is known about him and her, one can speculate that their relations are significantly closer than the ones which existed between Kim Il Sung and Kim Yong Ju or relations between Kim Jong Il and the Kim-Jang couple.
However, the general pattern is still the same: one can only hope that Kim Yo Jong’s future will be better than the future of the three people who have been in her shoes before.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: Joint Inter-Korean Summit Press Corps
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