WASHINGTON — When Vice President Mike Pence attended the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, he made a point of not speaking to the smiling young woman who led the North Korean delegation, even when they were seated a few feet apart.
“I didn’t avoid the dictator’s sister, but I did ignore her,” Pence said at the time, speaking of Kim Yo-jong, the only sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. “I didn’t believe it was proper for the USA to give her any attention in that forum.”
Few are ignoring Kim Yo-jong these days. To the contrary, U.S. intelligence officials and other North Korea-watchers are scrambling to learn more about her as they assess her recent rise to prominence amid the collapse of the Trump administration’s North Korea diplomatic gambit.
Kim, 32, has emerged over the past few days as a sort of “bad cop” of the North Korean regime, denouncing South Korea and threatening the physical destruction of a north-south liaison office that North Korea subsequently blew up.
That came after she appeared to be handing matters of state in April when her brother, 36-year-old Kim Jong Un, had disappeared from view amid speculation about his health.
With so little information about what goes on inside the world’s most secretive regime, North Korea analysts disagree about exactly where Kim Yo-jong fits in the hierarchy, including whether she is a potential successor to her brother in the event of his death. But this much seems clear: Her newly prominent role as Kim Jong Un’s spokeswoman and confidante suggests that family ties trump all in the North Korean dynasty, despite a male-dominated Confucian cultural ethos that normally bars women from prominent leadership roles.
“Is bloodline more important? I happen to think it is,” said Sue Mi Terry, a former top CIA analyst on North Korea now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “There has been a clear shift to a more substantive public role for her.”
Victor Cha, who was George W. Bush’s top North Korea adviser, added: “When you add up the record, her appearances, promotions in the Party, and now provocations ordered under her name, Yo-jong is being cultivated as a politically powerful, next-in-line, number-two to her brother.”
Jung Pak of the Brookings Institution, who held senior positions at the CIA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, said there appears to be an effort by the regime to burnish her military credentials as a powerful figure associated with using military force. The regime sought to bolster Kim Jong Un’s image before he came to power in a similar way, she said.
“That’s been a key gap in her resume,” Pak said.
It also seems that the regime wants to “deputize her on South Korean issues,” Pak added.
In the latest example, she blasted the South Korea president Wednesday, calling Moon Jae-in’s appeal for peace “sickening.”
“He seems to be insane, though he appears to be normal outwardly,” she said, “so I decided to prepare a bomb of words to let it be known to our people.”
In an example of how little is known about Kim Yo-jong, analysts believe she is married, but they are not sure to whom.
There are some reports she is married to Choe Song, the son of a very senior North Korean official, but that has not been confirmed, said Michael Madden, a Stimson Center fellow who has been gathering string on her for a decade. She is believed to be the mother of a toddler.
Madden says she attended the same Swiss primary school as her brother, and attended Kim il Sung University in 2008 or 2009.
“I spoke to a classmate who said she was very popular,” he said. “Her classmates and professors knew who she was, but there was a very strict instruction that she was not to be treated differently.”
In 2002, Kim Jong Il said his youngest daughter was interested in politics and wanted a career in North Korea’s political system, according to the North Korea Leadership Watch blog.
For many years, she served as a de facto chief of staff and aide-de-camp to her brother, remaining behind the scenes and helping with his public image, according to analysts.
Her debut on the world stage came during her role leading her country’s delegation at the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
She was the first member of North Korea’s ruling family to visit South Korea since the end of the Korean War in 1953. She grabbed international attention by delivering an invitation to South Korean President Moon Jae-in to visit North Korea, said Frank Aum of the U.S. Institute for Peace.
Ever since, “There is an increasing effort to bolster her position in the regime,” said Aum, who worked as a senior adviser for North Korea at the Pentagon from 2010 to 2017.
She attended both summits between her brother and President Trump. Last week, as the second anniversary of the first summit approached, Yo-jong lashed out at South Korean activists who send leaflets, bibles and rice over the border on hot air balloons.
“What matters is that those human scum hardly worth their value as human beings had the temerity of faulting our supreme leadership and citing ‘nuclear issue,'” Yo-jong said.
On Friday, June 12, two years to the day after Trump first met Kim Jong Un in Singapore, North Korea appeared to proclaim and end to the diplomacy, saying that the hopes of 2018 had “faded away into a dark nightmare.”
On Tuesday, the joint liaison office was destroyed in a huge explosion.
“I think the latest explosion and vitriol indicates an official consolidation of Kim Yo-jong’s power and authority in the North Korean power structure,” said Soojin Park, a public policy fellow at the Wilson Center and the former deputy spokesperson for the ministry of unification in Seoul.
Up until now, she was not in the forefront of provocations and was focusing on supporting her brother within the system. “This time, quite boldly, Kim Yo-jong issued a series of official statements directed at South Korea with very aggressive and abrasive language,” Park said.
By ordering military action, it helps “prove her authority to the North Korean people and to the outside world.”
It’s impossible to know if she is being groomed to succeed Kim, but this latest incident “bolsters that speculation,” she said.