South Korean Unification Minister Lee In-young told a committee of South Korean lawmakers Tuesday that he believed there was not enough evidence to draw such conclusions about Kim Yo Jong’s exact role in North Korea’s opaque political system.
Speaking to a different committee on Tuesday, Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo said that he believed Kim was running the Organization and Guidance Department (OGD) of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party (WPK), the party body that deals with ideological indoctrination, party organization and political appointments. Running the OGD is one of the most important political posts in North Korea. If Kim were in charge of it, it would likely be a sign of her increasing status and power.
Kim has for years been a trusted aide and confidante to her brother. She previously served as one of North Korea’s top propagandists and is now an alternate member to the Politburo — the senior body of North Korea’s ruling party.
Talk of Kim Yo Jong’s increasing role in North Korean politics has previously fueled speculation about her brother’s health. Kim Jong Un historically has kept a grueling schedule filled with public appearances, but he disappeared a handful of times from the public eye earlier this year, sometimes for weeks on end. He also reportedly has a very unhealthy lifestyle.
An unsurprising split
While it’s unusual for diverging intelligence opinions from active government officials like Jeong and Lee to become public, the split itself is not surprising. Government officials in South Korea and the United States are often forced to draw conclusions about North Korea based on very little information, given Pyongyang’s notorious secrecy.
North Korea does not make information about its government and leadership structure readily available to the outside world, nor does it keep its citizens regularly informed of key personnel decisions. There is no free press inside North Korea to independently monitor and report on leadership changes in either the government or the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea. The country’s propaganda machine strictly controls what information is published inside North Korea while censoring most content from the outside world.
Jeong and Lee work in different areas of North Korea policy. Jeong is charged with protecting South Korea from the North, while Lee is responsible for negotiating with Pyongyang and the possible reunification of the two Koreas.
Though Jeong and Lee appear to disagree on Kim Yo Jong’s exact role, the two ministers — and the NIS — agree that Kim Jong Un remains North Korea’s ultimate authority and retains a firm grip on power.
Rumblings about Kim Yo Jong’s position in North Korea come as the country is facing several pressing challenges that have seriously impacted the Kim Jong Un regime’s promise to improve the economy and living standards for average North Koreans.
Borders have been closed for months to keep the Covid-19 pandemic at bay. Nuclear talks with the US have proved fruitless. Deadly torrential rains have wreaked havoc on the country in recent weeks, and a typhoon is on the way.
Kim Jong Un chaired an emergency meeting Tuesday to discuss the pandemic and efforts to prepare for Typhoon Bavi, which is forecast to make landfall Wednesday or Thursday as the equivalent of a Category 1 hurricane either on the west coast of the Korean Peninsula or in China. North Korea’s derelict infrastructure and poor road network make the country extremely vulnerable to inclement weather.
Kim Yo Jong did not appear in any of the photographs of Tuesday’s meeting released by North Korean state media. While that doesn’t necessarily mean she was not present at the meeting — she could have been off-camera — Kim has not been reported present at multiple important party meetings this summer. Experts say her absence is unusual, but could be explained by mundane reasons like illness or having other business to attend to.
Neither the North Korean government nor the country’s state media has explained her absences.