Why Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong is not “No. 2” either
South Korean mainstream media outlets, and international media outlets subsequently, have paid much attention to the increasing appearances in DPRK state-orchestrated media of Kim Yo Jong, sister of Kim Jong Un. A common interpretation of her “rise” or “ascendancy to power” based on staged propaganda shots is premised on the fact that she is being featured more prominently; such a view misses the essential context of surface representations in North Korea’s power politics.
In continuing to justify existing assumptions via appealing to those assumptions, consciously or otherwise in a circular fashion, these also betray a lack of ongoing or firsthand access to knowledge and understanding regarding the actual and fundamental political structure of North Korea. This is the Supreme Leader Guidance system, maintained by the Organisation and Guidance Department of the Workers’ Party in systemic enforcement terms.
In Kim Jong Il’s time, his younger sister Kim Kyong Hee held an apparently “powerful position”, as head of a department responsible for North Korea’s economy. Even in such a position, Kim Kyong Hee exercised no rights or leverage with regard to North Korea’s economic matters.
Kim Kyong Hee’s “oversight” over the Light Industry Department of the Korean Workers’ Party had existed on a symbolic shell-basis only, as its working channels and networks and lines were blockaded on all sides by Office 38 and Office 39 mechanisms, which were responsible for Kim Jong Il’s funds and always operated on first priority.
There was one occasion, and really only one, where Kim Kyong Hee exercised influence over an economic initiative, and that was during the 13th World Festival of Youth and Students held in 1989. During that festival, she oversaw the issue of foreign exchange certificates via the Unification Development Bank, instigated for the purpose of maintaining controls over foreign currency circulation.
The issue of foreign exchange certificates at the time was rooted in a larger political framework, whereby the currency of “self-reliant” Pyongyang’s greatest enemy, the United States, was to be restricted from being circulated freely. The budget required for implementing the issue of foreign exchange certificates — intended to function as a surrogate for the American dollar — was borne by the “Association of Chosun People in Japan” also known as Jochongryeon, a United Front Department-coordinated entity operating under UFD oversight.
On the premise that many foreigners would come to Pyongyang for the first time, the Jochongryeon judged that they would be able to recoup the investment, and input into Pyongyang 600 million dollars held via the Chosun Credit Association (a company operating under Jochongryeon auspices). It was a bold move that banked on Kim Kyong Hee, as Kim Jong Il’s younger sister, serving as a dependable patron.
But as the 2:1 exchange rate of the foreign currency certificates devolved into a 1:8000 exchange rate, the certificates themselves came to be worth no more than toilet paper. There were no proper financial calculations involved in the initial decision to print many more certificates than the actual fund injection could support; and the funds themselves were misappropriated and quickly vanished in the implementation of Kim Jong Il ratifications and purchases to sustain a politics of “loyalty-gifts”.
In the aftermath of this catastrophe, the Jochongryeon saw the Chosun Credit Association go bankrupt, and its premises seized by Japanese authorities.
Whether in political or personal terms, Kim Kyong Hee lived as a destroyed woman. In order to maintain the singular pivot of Kim Jong Il’s Supreme Leader Guidance System, both she and her husband Jang Song Thaek were operationally classified by the Organisation and Guidance Department (the heart of the Party’s structural monopoly which operates through every central institution, military or otherwise, and is responsible for maintaining obedience to the Supreme Leader Guidance System via centrally coordinating surveillance and punishments, Party guidance and propaganda indoctrination) as a “side-branch” with corresponding surveillance restrictions, which made it practically impossible for them to forge or maintain alliances.
On top of this, Kim Kyong Hee was institutionally branded and stigmatised as being a “dangerous character, due to her potential for impulsive outbursts in speech or behaviour”, and consequently could not even go near the presence of Kim Jong Il without being asked or obtaining permission. Her surveillance circumstances amounted to living under monitored house arrest, confined and contained by a severe set of restrictions. Kim Kyong Hee had no allies to call on but alcohol; and even her husband Jang Song Thaek was ultimately executed for “anti-party and counter-revolutionary crimes”.
Compared to Kim Kyong Hee, Kim Jong Un’s younger sister Kim Yo Jong is in an incomparably weaker position. Kim Kyong Hee had at least the sympathies of her father, Kim Il Sung, who as a powerless and out-maneuvered Supreme Leader by the end of his days at least held, and thus could assign to her, the narrowly compartmentalised rights to look after the economic affairs of Mt. Keumsu Assembly Hall and Mansudae Assembly Hall.
In contrast, all the background Kim Yo Jong has is being the younger sister of Kim Jong Un, who inevitably has fewer allies and channels of influence than even Kim Il Sung had during his final years as Supreme Leader under Kim Jong Il’s OGD.
In the rigid structure of North Korean politics, where Kim Jong Un’s own uncle was violently executed by the enforcers of Kim Jong Il’s Supreme Leader Guidance System, who on operational principle do not hold public office, and remain unharmed in their OGD positions just as they were under Kim Jong Il; in that savage world of Kim Jong Il’s most astute associates, who essentially understand that their monopoly of grip on power and wealth is irreconcilable with the growth of “side-branches” (in all but surface presentation, for the sake of the Kim dynasty’s narrative legitimacy, fatally necessary to justify their system of control); it is in this context that we now see Kim Yo Jong (birth status: side-branch) being pushed prominently onto the public stage.
Kim Jong Un is presented as engaging in much public activity, in efforts to establish the stability and continuity of the Kim dynasty hereditary system. But remember, the enforcers of this regime are capable of thoroughly erasing from history not only the Supreme Leader’s uncle-by-marriage, but even his own older brother, Kim Jong Chul. It can choose not to allow and has no plausible incentive in allowing Kim Jong Un’s younger sister to grow any independent powers — just as was the case with Kim Kyong Hee.
It goes without saying, North Korea’s real power holders, and even lower ranking Party cadres, have no reason to believe that “Kim Yo Jong is becoming powerful”; it is only some in the outside world who may persist in speculating about her. Acknowledging the sources of knowledge is fundamental to getting our shared understanding — and approaches — right with regard to North Korea, the system and its people.
(This New Focus analysis is an amalgamation based on vetted firsthand knowledge and sources.)
By Jang Jin-sung
Read in Korean
Translated by Sharon Kim