The country has only known male leadership, with its revered female figures receiving such regard because of their loyalty, care, or support for those men.
In fact, there is little precedent in all of Korean history for women of such positions. Empress Myeongseong, for instance, may be a highly regarded figure among Korean nationalists today, but this esteem largely rests on her resistance to Japanese influence through court politics – and, of course, her shocking murder by the hated Japanese – rather than a public leadership role.
Even beyond the image problem female leadership might present, practical analysis of her prospects has suggested she could not out-maneuver Choe Ryong Hae, who would exercise political control over the military.
But as Kim Jong Un’s public absences multiply and grow in duration, her role has clearly changed. With a less prominent presence following her visit to the Pyeongchang Olympics in 2018, she has suddenly had much more to say recently – and they have not been tidings of good cheer.
In March, she delivered another message to Seoul, calling their distinctly non-inflammatory objections to North Korea’s tests of missiles – whose range poses a distinct threat to South Korea, rather than the U.S. – saying such complaints “magnify our distrust, hatred and scorn for the South side as a whole.”
She has become the mouthpiece of the North as it denounces defector-led organizations that fly anti-North leaflets into the country – as well as the South for not doing enough to prevent them – she has vowed to shutter the inter-Korean liaison office, and most recently has warned that North Korea’s military will decide what to do with the South next.
It’s becoming increasingly difficult to consider her growing public role, her brother’s absences, and the mounting inter-Korean tensions as coincidental: North Korea may be in a new era.
This may not be confirmed for some time, nor will we know its exact contours, given the opaque nature of North Korea’s decision-making. Her role could be to speak as the country’s mouthpiece and representative of the Paektu bloodline while he avoids possible exposure to Covid-19.
Maybe he did indeed have a health scare recently, and now sees the need to have a successor in place, in case of a much more dramatic transition that may take place in the near future.
For now, let’s assume that Kim Jong Un is alive, and what public appearances he has undertaken since early May were not actually the work of “body doubles” or any other supervillain-esque trickery.
A decision to elevate Kim Yo Jong’s position would have some precedent – her role under his rule certainly bears similarities to what her father performed under their grandfather.
For more than two decades, Kim Jong Il played an integral role in boosting Kim Il Sung’s stature to monolithic status that could not be challenged or even questioned.
The transition also featured acts of aggression later attributed to Kim Jong Il, particularly the attempted assassination of Chun Doo-hwan in Rangoon in 1983, and the bombing of Korean Air Flight 858 in 1987.
Fast-forward to 2009-10, and we see something similar, as a gaunt, pale post-stroke Kim Jong Il continued to carry out public duties as mentions of an heir circulated, and Kim Jong Un suddenly began appearing beside him at major events.
What’s more, relations with the outside world deteriorated: the downturn in inter-Korean relations could be blamed on a conservative power transition in Seoul, but not their slapping away of the Obama administration’s overtures.
A decision to elevate Kim Yo Jong’s position would have some precedent
This time period saw the end of the North’s participation in the Six-Party Talks, more nuclear tests and “satellite” launches, the severing of inter-Korean communication lines and, of course, the attacks on the Cheonan and Yeonpyeong.
Not only were such incidents useful as tests of Seoul and Washington’s resolve, the associated tensions appear to be the natural conditions under which power transitions take place in the North.
Even with a more pliant administration in Seoul, the North of late appears determined to make the most of inter-Korean hostilities, even if it must manufacture them, and to position Kim Yo Jong as the spokesperson for their grievances.
So, under such conditions, could Kim Yo Jong successfully maneuver herself into the position of Supreme Leader?
She may be at a disadvantage in some respects – unlike her brother, she can’t use her appearance to stoke nostalgia for Kim Il Sung, and North Korea is not unique in placing patriarchs at the head of totalitarian governance systems.
It’s not that women leaders are not capable of ruthless political calculations – see Mary I’s murderous suppression of Protestants in 16th century England, or Aung San Suu Kyi’s sad complicity in the Rohingyan genocide.
But, while the eight totalitarian case studies in Frank Dikotter’s “Dictators: The Cult of Personality in the Twentieth Century” featured considerable diversity – from the Fascist Italy and Duvalier-era Haiti to an assortment of communist regimes (including Kim Yo Jong’s grandfather) – none were women.
Yet, the real lesson of Dikotter’s book was that the role of the totalitarian despot must be performed – the exaggerated reputations such leaders claim cannot be earned, but can be manufactured.
“Stalin constantly pruned his own cult, cutting back what he thought was excessive praise only to allow it to reappear a few years later when he judged the time was ripe,” he writes.
“Ceaușescu compulsively promoted his own person. Hitler, too, attended to every detail of his image in the early years … All of them used the full resources of the state to promote themselves.”
In that respect, Kim Yo Jong would have a natural advantage not even her brother possessed, thanks to her role and experience in the Propaganda and Agitation Department.
Even her practical disadvantage vis-à-vis Choe Ryong Hae can be overcome. It seems like a dynasty ago, but upon Kim Jong Un’s ascent there were many who saw Jang Song Thaek as the power behind the throne, as he was the more experienced political operator, had his own political power base and loyalists, and he enjoyed the ear of North Korea’s primary benefactor. Such advantages mattered, until one day they didn’t.
But, again, given the nature of North Korea’s leadership politics, such speculation could be rendered moot within days (or hours) of reading this.
If Kim Yo Jong is, indeed, moving from a supporting role toward the summit of Pyongyang’s leadership politics, look for emerging stories of her “genius” and her unsurpassed love of the Korean people. The recently revived reference to the “party center” could be a giveaway.
Rob York is director for regional affairs at the Pacific Forum. He previously worked as a production editor for The South China Morning Post and chief editor of NK News. He is also a Ph.D. candidate in Korean history at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.