Where is Kim Jong-un? Is he alive? Is he dead? Has the obese 36-year-old with a weird haircut had a stroke or heart attack? Has the coronavirus pandemic forced him into a secret lockdown? Does he have coronavirus? Has he been the victim of a palace coup?
The questions are being asked because the North Korean leader failed to make an appearance on 13 April at one of the most important annual celebrations in the country’s political calendar– the birthday anniversary celebrations for his grandfather—Kim il-Sung.
All the above questions are important. But even more important is who is likely to succeed him and what would a post-Kim world look like?
The current front-runner to succeed as leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is “Dear Leader’s” little sister, 32-year-old Kim Yo-jong. The main reason is that the running of the highly secretive and oppressive communist regime is a family affair and the little sister is Km Jong-un’s closest family. However, there are some issues with the sibling. First of all, Kim Yo-jong, is a woman in a highly patriarchal society.
If the Politburo want to stick to the male line, then there is an option in the form for much older (65) half-brother Kim Pyong-il. The elder Kim has only recently returned to Pyongyang after a lifetime of bouncing around Europe’s capitals as a career ambassador. However, Ambassador Kim’s travels were less of a career choice than a diplomatic exile as he was reported to be estranged from the rest of the family.
Another reason for possibly choosing Ambassador Kim is that sister Kim Yo-jong was blamed for the abject failure of the US-North Korean Talks in Hanoi at the end of February 2019. If Yo-jong has a speciality it is public relations and she is believed to have been given the task of constructing a diplomatic formula that gave the appearance of a successful negotiation even if the two sides remained as far apart as ever. She failed dismally. The final sessions were cancelled and both sides refused to sign a communique.
Yo-jong and her brother are said to have a close relationship which dates back to their student days at the exclusive Liebfeld School in Switzerland. She made her public debut at their father’s funeral in 2010, but was not mentioned by name in any North Korean communiques or news reports until two years later when she was filmed with her brother visiting a military riding school.
Two years later she formally started her rise through the family business when she was named head of the Propaganda and Agitation Department. In 2017 she was made an Alternate member of the ruling Politburo and is rumoured to have taken control of the country’s powerful secret police. Then came the disastrous Hanoi Summit which resulted in Yo-jong being dropped from the Politburo.
However, her brother’s no-show at their grandfather’s birthday anniversary celebrations, led to her reinstatement; this time as a full Politburo member with the added title of Dang Joon-ang, or designated successor; all of which fuelled rumours that Kim Jong-un was on the way out or gone. It would seem that the North Korean leadership is wedded to the principle of a dynastic communist leadership which trumps any anti-feminism.
It is unlikely that a female Kim in power will result in any major policy changes. She is credited with manufacturing the cult of personality around her brother and will probably continue that so that it can be extended to herself and eventually her five-year-old son by a North Korean military official. There is likely to be a blood-letting of Politburo members—literally. She and her brother have already started replacing their father’s generation with their own younger acolytes.
The possibility of an early nuclear disarmament agreement with the US is unlikely. Kim Yo-jong will need to be fully secure in her power base before she came make any major foreign policy changes. If there is to be any improvement on either the North Korea or domestic front it is more likely that it will come from Kim Jong-un. So, please , Dear Leader, accept my wishes for a speedy recovery.
Tom Arms is a regular contributor.