Mystery disappearance of Kim’s sister

 

Just days ago, rumours were rife that Kim Jong-un was in a coma and power was about to pass to his sister.

But pictures of the North Korean dictator have begun popping up all over the place.

Last week, there were snaps of him chairing political meetings here and inspecting typhoon ravaged fields there.

However, now there is another rumour taxing the minds of North Korea watchers. Where has Kim's loyal sister, Kim Yo-jong, gone?

One minute she was leader-in-waiting, now she has vanished. She has been notably lacking from any recent images trickling out of the Hermit Kingdom.

Experts have said Ms Kim may have, inadvertently, made the biggest mistake a pretender to the Pyongyang throne can make. And it could end very badly for her indeed.

Ms Kim is by no means the only figure who relishes running the nation, and her disappearance has highlighted the bloody and brutal power play in Pyongyang.

A North Korea watcher has said her future is now starkly laid out. She will either ascend to be Supreme Leader or she will lose all power and "potentially her life as well".

North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un reportedly visited a farm this week to inspect typhoon damage. KCNA/Yonhap
North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un reportedly visited a farm this week to inspect typhoon damage. KCNA/Yonhap

It's hard to judge the veracity of images that emerge from North Korea given there's no one to vouch for their authenticity.

But even if it is assumed the snaps of Kim inspecting ears of corn in the wake of Typhoon Bavi are recent, there's no doubt he has been making far fewer public appearances in the last year.

He may not be at death's door but observers still contend he's hardly at the peak of fitness. Overweight and a chain smoker, he comes from a family with a history of diabetes and heart disease. It would be little wonder if he wanted to sit a few meetings out.

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KIM YO-JONG 'AGGRESSIVELY VISIBLE'

This month, it was reported that South Korea's National Intelligence Service (NIS) had learned Kim had delegated a number of roles to his sister due to "high stress levels".

The NIS had said Ms Kim's chairmanship of the powerful Central Committee of the Workers Party meant she was now "de facto second in command".

Certainly, her star has been on the rise. She was the highest ranking North Korean official to travel to the 2018 Winter Olympics held in South Korea. More recently she has publicly hit out at the US and, dramatically, she was behind the destruction of a South Korean office block built on North Korean soil that had been a sign of improving relations between the two foes.

Korean newspaper The Chosun Ilbo has gone so far as to call her "aggressively visible".

In recent years, she has been seen attending high-level government meetings and was close to Kim at international summits.

And yet, just as talk reached fever pitch that she might be next in line to the throne, Ms Kim is nowhere to be seen.

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MISTAKE

Ms Kim has not been seen in public since July 27. She was absent from a politburo, or cabinet meeting, on August 13, according to  NK News.

The images that emerged this week from Pyongyang showed Kim with many high-ranking officials. His sister did not seem to be among them.

Her mistake may have been to become almost too noticeable. Which in turn led to growing speculation about her future ambitions. While she may not have uttered the words "second in command", the fact that's now being openly talked about might have been enough to put her in the bad books.

"In the past, anyone was deprived of their position the moment they were described as the number two person in the North," Korea University's Professor Nam Sung-wook told The Chosun Ilbo.

"There must be a semblance of checks and balances, although Kim Yo-jong is a family member."

It's possible, said Prof Nam, that she may have retreated from the limelight of her own accord to keep the spotlight on her brother.

 

 

THE KIMS HAVE A HABIT OF KILLING FAMILY

Ms Kim would be right to be wary. Her family has a history of dispatching senior officials that get too big for their boots and blood relatives are no exception.

In 2017, her brother Kim Jong-nam was assassinated at Kuala Lumpur airport, apparently under the orders of Kim.

 

However, Kim Jong-nam was more an irritant than a threat. A more worrying example might be Jang Song-thaek.

He was the son-in-law of Kim Jong-il, Kim Jong-un's father and predecessor as leader. When Kim Jong-il's health faded, it was widely said that Mr Jang had become the de facto North Korean leader in his place.

Initially, under Kim Jong-un's reign, Mr Jang's influence continued to rise. Then, quite abruptly, and just like Ms Kim now, he was absent from key meetings.

In late 2013, a statement was released by the government characterising Mr Jang as "worse than a dog" and hellbent on "grabbing the supreme power by the most cunning a sinister means".

He was executed as were, reportedly, his relatives and children.

Jang Song-thank, left, was for many years at the heart of North Korea’s power as well as being Kim Jong-un’s uncle. Picture: AP Photo/Kyodo News, File.
Jang Song-thank, left, was for many years at the heart of North Korea’s power as well as being Kim Jong-un’s uncle. Picture: AP Photo/Kyodo News, File.

 

DEADLY POWERPLAY

Fyodor Tertitskiy, an expert on North Korea at Seoul's Kookmin University said having a Kim sibling close to the leader has happened before but it doesn't mean they will ascend any further.

Nonetheless, because only members of the Kim family have held the top position, Ms Kim could fill her brother's shoes relatively easily.

If she doesn't though, she needs to be careful. A new leader might not relish Kim Yo-jong, a possible rival, hanging around, Mr Tertitskiy told the BBC.

"Unless another member of the Kim family comes in charge, for her the things will be very simple," he said.

"Either she takes the mantle of the Supreme Leader or loses all power and potentially her life as well."

A rival to her authority within the family could be Kim Pyong-il. The 65-year-old is of impeccable stock being the son of Kim Il-sung who founded the dictatorship. However, a career as a diplomat in Europe has left him without far reaching political clout in Pyongyang.

Dr Leonid Petrov, a Korean Studies lecturer at the Australian National University, told news.com.au this week that if Kim were to be unable to continue leading it was likely a "top brass" of military and party elders would step in rather than turn to Ms Kim who is seen as "too cruel" even by North Korean standards.

"They have been living in fear long enough and will not need another despot with new rules of survival," he said.

Vice Marshal and Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission Choe Ryong-hae (centre) is one of the most high raking North Koreans and has been called second in charge. Picture: AP Photo/Korean Central News Agency via Korea News Service.
Vice Marshal and Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission Choe Ryong-hae (centre) is one of the most high raking North Koreans and has been called second in charge. Picture: AP Photo/Korean Central News Agency via Korea News Service.

That might mean the pliable Kim Pyong-il or Kim's low-profile younger brother might be installed as leader.

However, in that scenario, the real power might lie with someone like Choe Ryong-hae whose current official role is often compared to that of a head of state. South Korea's Yonhap news agency recently referred to him, not Kim Yo-jong, as "North Korea's No. 2 leader".

But, perhaps the biggest threat to Ms Kim is a 10-year-old: Kim's son.

Even if she took on the top job, she might just be a seat warmer.

Yoo Ho-yeol, a professor of North Korean Studies at Korea University told Canada's National Post in April that her role would "be limited to a regent at most".

"[There is] not only the male-dominant leadership, but also ordinary people there would resist a female leader," he said.

 

The danger then for Ms Kim is if the younger Kim sees her as a threat and expunges her.

Another theory could be just as dangerous for Ms Kim. That her brother has given her more power so if she fails at her tasks she can take the blame and provide cover for him. If that happens her punishment could still be death.

Korea experts will be watching closely to see when, if, and in what form Ms Kim emerges back into the limelight.

But Kookmin University's Mr Tertitskiy doubts some of the hubris around Ms Kim's next big promotion.

"If and when Kim Jong-un really begins promoting his sister, we will know about it very quickly. There won't be any need to speculate," he wrote in NK News.

Until then, the best advice for any aspiring leader of North Korea is not to look too much like you want to be a leader of North Korea. Down that route lies banishment and, very possibly, the barrel of a gun.

Originally published as Mystery disappearance of Kim's sister