Kim Jong-un’s sister has been out of public view for more than a month – prompting fears that her rise to prominence has gone too far for North Korea’s liking.
Kim Yo-jong has been described as her brother’s ‘number two’ after representing the regime at official events and wielding influence over the secretive state’s policies.
She has even been seen as a possible future successor to Kim Jong-un amid persistent rumours about the dictator’s health.
However, an expert told South Korea’s Chosun Ilbo that the North has previously demoted anyone seen as a ‘number two’ – although Kim’s sister may get special treatment as a member of the ruling dynasty.
Kim Yo-jong, pictured right with her brother Kim Jong-un in Pyongyang, has come to be seen as the dictator’s ‘number two’ and a policymaker in her own right
‘In the past, anyone was deprived of their position the moment they were described as the number two person in the North,’ said professor Nam Sung-wook of Korea University.
‘There must be a semblance of checks and balances, although Kim Yo-jong is a family member.’
Kim Jong-un previously purged his own uncle to secure his own grip on power after succeeding his father Kim Jong-il in 2011.
The dictator’s sister was last seen in public on July 27 and may have been lying low in order to avoid angering her brother by fuelling further speculation about her role, it is believed.
She last appeared at an event to mark 67 years since the armistice that ended the Korean War – although no full peace treaty has ever been signed.
Last week she was not pictured at a meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party, having attended many previous such meetings.
Kim Jong-un’s wife Ri Jol-su has also been out of sight since January, leading to speculation she could have had another child.
The couple are believed to have three children, with the youngest born in 2017, according to the South’s intelligence service.
The oldest is a 10-year-old son, meaning that none of them could take control of the regime if Kim Jong-un was incapacitated or dead.
Kim Yo-jong was touted as a possible successor earlier this year when the supreme leader mysteriously vanished from public view for several weeks.
Kim’s absence from his late grandfather’s birthday celebrations in mid-April – the most important day in the North’s political calendar – led to claims that the dictator was seriously ill or dead.
He finally resurfaced in May – but experts say there are other signs that Kim Yo-jong’s influence has been growing.
Believed to be in her 30s, she came to wider attention in the West during the flurry of international diplomacy in 2018 and 2019 by appearing at a series of international events.
Kim Yo-jong has represented her brother at several international events, including a meeting with South Korea’s top national security adviser in the DMZ last year (pictured)
These included the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea and the failed 2019 summit with Donald Trump in Vietnam.
But this year, Kim has taken on a more public policy role, cementing her status as an influential political player in her own right.
‘Prior to this, Kim Yo Jong was portrayed in state media as Kim Jong Un’s sister, his protocol officer, or one of his accompanying officials,’ said Rachel Minyoung Lee, a former North Korea analyst for the US government, earlier this year.
‘Now, North Koreans know for sure there is more to her than that.’
In March, state media carried the first ever statement by Kim, in which she criticised South Korean authorities.
There have since been several more, including a response Trump and a warning that the North would cut communications with South Korea.
‘In addition to the harsh words and sarcasm, they can be bitingly witty in ways that the other statements are not,’ Lee said.
‘She seems to have more leeway in crafting her statements, which of course is not surprising,’ Lee said.
In a closed-door briefing to South Korean lawmakers earlier this month, Seoul’s spy agency said Kim Jong-un had recently delegated some of his powers to a select group of senior officials including his sister.
Officials from the National Intelligence Service said Kim’s rule was still absolute but that he was seeking to relieve the stress of managing state affairs, lawmaker Ha Tae-keung said.
Kim’s state-planned economy has been under strain in recent weeks because of heavy rains and floods, as well as measures to contain the coronavirus.
International aid workers in North Korea are currently unable to travel outside Pyongyang due to coronavirus restrictions.
North Korea has not announced a single case of the virus, although there is widespread scepticism about the regime’s claims.