TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — After news broke on Tuesday that North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un is gravely ill, North Korea watchers believe that his sister could take over in the event he dies.
On Tuesday, CNN cited a US official as saying that Kim was in critical condition over a week after what Daily NK described as a cardiovascular system procedure on April 12. However, the South Korean government downplayed the report, saying that it had not observed any unusual activity in the hermit kingdom, reported AP.
Because North Korea is so completely cut off from the outside world that even the best intelligence agencies lack assets on the ground, there is no way to confirm or deny Kim's current health status. Nevertheless, the news of his failing health has raised concerns in the West about possible successors, with his younger sister Kim Yo Jong eyed as a likely candidate.
Many experts brush off the idea of a woman becoming the top leader in the male-dominated communist country with strong Confucian traditions. Others, on the other hand, point to what appears to be a pattern of grooming the 32-year-old member of the Kim dynasty as a future leader.
Kim Yo Jong is believed to be the daughter of Ko Yong Hui, the mistress of Kim Jong Il's who is also the mother of Kim Jong Un and their two older brothers. Their brother Kim Jong Nam was assassinated, allegedly at the direction of Kim Jong Un, in 2017, while their other brother Kim Jong Chul was passed over by his father and is not believed to be heavily involved in politics.
Kim Yo Jong and Kim Jong Un are believed to have established a close bond while studying in Switzerland together from 1996 to 2000. She first rose to prominence as a junior cadre in the Korean Worker's Party in 2007, and since her brother became supreme leader in 2011, she has steadily risen through the ranks.
Kim Yo Jong, who now serves as the first vice-department director of the Korean Workers' Party Central Committee, first gained international attention in 2018 when she represented her country at the PyeongChang 2018 Olympic Winter Games. She has become increasingly visible at Kim's public appearances, including summits, such as the meetings with Trump in Singapore and Vietnam.
On Dec. 17, 2019, Yo Jong issued her first direct military order, calling on all-female units to “remain alert to the working conditions and health of the female soldiers and to extend them special consideration," reported Daily NK. In March, she issued her first public statement, which came in the form of a response to South Korea's protests of North Korea's firing of two short-range ballistic missiles. Yo Jong said that the launches were an "action for self-defense" that was "not aimed to threaten anybody," reported Yonghap News Agency.
However, in the event Kim dies and his sister takes over, it may not represent a major change or softening in North Korean foreign policy. VICE News cited Sung Yoon Lee, an expert on the Koreas at The Fletcher School at Tufts University, as saying "It is entirely possible that Ms. Kim will prove even more tyrannical than her brother or father or grandfather."
It might even mean a ramping up of missile tests and other hostile military activity by North Korea to show the male leaders in her country that she is tough enough to stay in charge. "She will also have to show her mettle by provoking the U.S. with major weapons tests and lethal attacks on South Korea and U.S. forces stationed there," said Sung.