North Korea’s young ruler Kim Jong-un has not been seen in public for more than a month now, giving rise to rumors that his younger sister may be now in charge.
The North Korea Intellectuals’ Solidarity, a think tank run by defectors, said Kim Yo-jong may be at least temporarily leading the government, CNN reported, adding that the group has not revealed the source of its information and that the news network cannot independently confirm it.
Rumors have been swirling about the young despot’s long absence from the public eye. Some say Kim is suffering from gout or diabetes, or may be having problems with his ankles. An extreme rumor is that he has been unseated and is under house arrest.
None of these rumors have been verified, however.
Michael Madden, who runs the blog North Korea Leadership Watch, told CNN that Kim Yo-jong has been identified in North Korean media as deputy director of the Workers’ Party, a very powerful position.
Victor Cha, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies and former director of the White House’s National Security Council, said Kim’s sister began surfacing publicly earlier this year at party functions.
“Clearly it’s an effort to slow-track her into becoming somebody who is important within the system,” Cha said. “I can see how it’s possible that she’s in some sort of temporary position. It’s very difficult for the North Korean system to run without one of the Kim family at least titularly in charge. So, if Kim Jong-un is indisposed, she’s really the only available body that’s left, in terms of a direct Kim family line.”
Madden provides the following information about Kim Yo-jong:
- She was born in 1987 or 1988, and attended a private school in Switzerland with Kim Jong-un.
- She is the youngest of Kim Jong-il’s seven children with four women. Kim Jong-un and Kim Yo-jong have the same mother.
- After returning from Switzerland, she was appointed to several important government positions. She often acted as an advance-team leader, inspecting sites before official visits, and had administrative duties as well.
- Since her brother took over the reins of government, Kim Yo-jong has taken on more responsibilities, including dealing with policy and receiving intelligence briefings, acting “almost like a White House chief-of-staff would”.
Some North Korea watchers have voiced concern about her ascent to the top position, considering her age and the pressures of the job.
“If in fact she is running the country — as someone in their early to mid twenties, to me that is quite alarming,” Cha told CNN. “It means there is something seriously wrong with Kim Jong-un and there is some sort of void that they’re desperately trying to fill.”
On Friday, North Korea will mark the 69th anniversary of the ruling Workers’ Party. If Kim Jong-un attends the event like he did last year, analysts will be closely watching for signs that could suggest an explanation for his long absence.
A no-show would only fuel more rumors and speculation.
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