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Can Kim Yo Jong become successor of Kim Jong Un?

Posted April. 17, 2020 07:40,   

Updated April. 17, 2020 07:40


In April 2016 prior to the seventh Congress of the Workers' Party of Korea, the Hwajeong Peace Foundation under The Dong-A Ilbo conducted a survey of 102 experts from four major security thinktanks in South Korea, including the Korea Institute for National Unification. To a question asking who would become the second-in-command in North Korea after the congress, 23 percent of respondents picked Kim Yo Jong who was then serving as the first deputy director of the Workers’ Party's Propaganda and Agitation Department while 21.2 percent answered Kim Won Hong, the then-director of the State Security Department.

“Kim Jong Un is expected to build a pro-government system mainly with his younger sister and member of the ‘Mount Paektu Bloodline’ Kim Yo Jong and Kim Won Hong who has helped to strengthen Kim Jong Un’s control even before he took power and exercised the so-called ‘purge power.’ However, considering that all the seconds-in-command of the North Korean leader had been purged, it is possible that Kim Won Hong himself who has been purging others may be next in line for a purge,” the article on the survey wrote at the time.

The projection was correct. Kim Yo Jong first stepped onto the diplomatic stage with her visit to South Korea in March 2018 as a special envoy and has been reinforcing her second-in-command position as she returned to the Political Bureau as an alternate member at the Political Bureau meeting of the Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea on Saturday. Meanwhile, Kim Won Hong stepped down as the director of the State Security Department in early 2017 for a false report and reemerged as the deputy director of the General Political Department of the Korean People's Army before being purged again. Some have reported that he was executed.

“Ri Man Gon, the director of the Organization and Guidance Department, and Pak Thae Dok, the deputy director of the Agriculture Department, can be categorized as close associates of First Vice Chairman of the State Affairs Commission Choe Ryong Hae,” Lee Seung-yeol, a research fellow of the National Assembly Research Service, wrote in a report published on March 31. “Such appointments have been made to weaken the political power of Choi.” The report also added that Choi is likely to be the scapegoat for an economic crisis, passing the second-in-command position to Kim Yo Jong.

As Kim Yo Jong is emerging as the second-in-command in North Korea surpassing Kim Won Hong and Choi Ryong Hae, there are logical questions to be followed: Can Kim Yo Jong be purged at some point by her older brother? Or would she become the fourth successor of power in North Korea to take over Kim Jong Un under emergencies based on her status of the Mount Paektu Bloodline?

One would have better luck tossing a coin than trying to predict the future of the Kim dynasty. However, it is possible to make an academic guess based on the theories about deciding a successor of a socialist autocratic state, which were used to forecast the successor of Kim Jong Il. One of the well-known examples is political scientist Dr. Leslie Holmes’s 3Ps+X theory. His theory states that when the supreme leader loses power in socialist autocratic states, such as the Soviet Union and China, a figure with a power base, personal qualification, and policy-making ability takes over as a successor.

Kim Yo Yong has a secure power base – her brother Kim Jong Un. She must have also formed a group of close associates during the process of assisting her brother in close proximity after their father’s death. Her political capabilities are under review as well. She seems to have been involved in the U.S.-North Korea dialogues as well as the inter-Korean dialogues since 2018. She might be also playing a crucial role in response to COVID-19. So far, it has been about her performance.

Now, it is about her personal qualifications. Such qualifications require recognition from others, including both the elites and the public. Can a woman be accepted as the leader of North Korea where Confucian rules are preval‎ent and a patriarchal political culture, which was intentionally established to reinforce the dictatorship of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il, exists? It won’t be easy given the level of gender equality in North Korea compared to the South, which has already produced a female president.

Suk-Ho Shin kyle@donga.com