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View more articles by Dagyum Ji
Dagyum Ji is a senior NK News correspondent based in Seoul. She previously worked for Reuters TV.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s influential sister Kim Yo Jong appears to have recently received a promotion, South Korea’s spy agency reported on Tuesday.
Kim, who serves as first vice director of the DPRK ruling party’s Propaganda and Agitation Department (PAD), “appears to have been elevated” in position, a South Korean lawmaker said following a meeting with the National Intelligence Service (NIS).
Speaking at a briefing with local media in a statement carried by Yonhap News Agency, head of the National Assembly’s Intelligence Committee Lee Hye-hoon said the intelligence service believes Kim’s “authority seems to be enhanced due to the adjustment of roles.”
Hyon Song Wol, vice director of the PAD of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), is also now believed to have taken on Kim’s previous role “in charge of managing events on the ground,” Lee added.
North Korean state media on Friday reported that Kim Yo Jong had welcomed Chinese President Xi Jinping at Pyongyang’s Sunan International Airport alongside other high-level officials including Pak Pong Ju, Kim Yong Chol, and Ri Yong Ho.
The NIS also said Kim Yo Jong was seen “placed on the same rank with president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly (SPA) Choe Ryong Hae and vice chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea Ri Su Yong.”
Rachel Minyoung Lee, a senior analyst with NK News‘s sister site NK Pro, expressed skepticism about the reports.
“My interpretation based strictly on open source information is that there is still not enough evidence to support the theory that Kim has been promoted,” she said.
“In the DPRK leadership line-up at the airport, she was mentioned and seen second to the last among the civilians, only before DPRK envoy to China Ji Jae Ryong, who does not have a party position,” she continued.
“The logic that Hyon Song Wol took over Kim Yo Jong’s protocol duties and therefore Kim has been promoted also seems weak. It means a realignment of duties, but not necessarily a promotion.”
The fact that the DPRK leader’s sister was not seen at a group photo session of members of the Political Bureau (PB) of the WPK Central Committee on Thursday, Lee added, also undermined the NIS’s claims.
“Lastly, Kim Yo Jong was not in the photo the DPRK and Chinese leaders took with the North Korean party Political Bureau leadership, which seems to suggest she is no longer on the Political Bureau,” Lee said.
“PB membership is symbolic of one’s standing in the leadership hierarchy in North Korea. I am not sure how losing one’s Political Bureau alternate member title is a promotion, unless the NIS can provide an explanation about this.”
Kim Yong Chol, who serves as a vice-chairman of the Central Committee of the country’s ruling Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), is also believed to have been demoted — a theory the NIS said was substantiated by his non-attendance at a high-level meeting between Kim Jong Un and Chinese President Xi Jinping last week.
Kim did, however, take place in a welcoming ceremony for the Chinese leader that same day.
“It shows there is the adjustment in his role,” lawmaker Lee Hye-hoon said, pointing to the seating arrangement at a welcoming event in which “foreign minister Ri Yong Ho was placed in front of a party vice chairman whose ranking is higher than him.”
“It suggests that the status of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has risen and the foreign ministry takes the lead on [handling] foreign pending issues.”
The NIS in April previously reported that Kim Yong Chol had stepped down from his position of the director of the WPK Central Committee’s United Front Department (UFD).
In photos released by North Korean state media, Ri Yong Ho is seen standing in second place after Pak Pong Ju, and ahead of vice chairmen at the Party Central Committee Ri Man Gon, Ri Su Yong, Choe Hwi, and Kim Yong Chol.
NK Pro previously reported that state media had in its coverage of the DPRK-PRC summit named foreign minister Ri Yong Ho ahead of Ri Su Yong for the first time.
During the debriefing, the NIS also said Xi’s visit to North Korea had been “decided suddenly” due to growing protests against a controversial extradition bill in Hong Kong.
The South Korean spy agency also noted that this was the first time that the Chinese President’s visit to the North had been described as a “state visit,” — comments which echo analysis by NK Pro last week.
The NIS also sought to draw attention to the “unusual” inclusion of minister-level officials from the economic and military field in China’s delegation.
These included head of the National Development and Reform Commission He Lifeng and Minister of Commerce Zhong Shan and director of the Political Work Department of the Central Military Commission (CMC) Miao Hua.
Taking into account the composition of the Chinese entourage, the NIS said it would be “hard to rule out the possibility that the two sides discussed ways to cooperate in the military field, along with economic cooperation.”
“Given that figures related to the economy and the military attended, it appears that the discussion focused on support for the people’s livelihoods within the framework of sanctions on North Korea,” Lee said, quoting the briefing.
The presence of Zhong Shan, he continued, also suggests that plans to “provide indirect supports including the ease of requirements for tourism and the encouragement of cultural exchanges” were discussed.
Beijing and Pyongyang may also have raised the possibility of a “resumption of high-level military exchanges” considering Miao Hua’s attendance, he added.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured Image: Ministry of Unification