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Hermit Kingdom

The First Ladies of North Korea: Their Roles and Meaning

North Korea
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaks during the 2nd Conference of Secretaries of Primary Committees of the Workers' Party of Korea (WPK), in this photo released on March 1, 2022 by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). KCNA via REUTERS.

The First Ladies of North Korea are again frequently turning up in global coverage of the reclusive state.  I found myself intrigued by the media response to Kim Yo Jong, DPRK Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un’s sister, and now his daughter Ju Ae.

Kim Yo Jong came to international prominence while I was still special advisor for North Korea in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2017-2021.  There are obvious and undeniable reasons to track her statements and political movements.  Her familial relationship to the Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un matters a great deal in North Korea’s hereditary absolute monarchy.  After all, direct lineage to Regime demiurge Kim Il Sung is the source of legitimacy.

Since Kim Jong Un’s rise to power, most DPRK-watchers know Kim Yo Jong for her venom-filled threats against South Korea and the United States about the fortieth or so “red line” we have crossed that will merit our “remorseless punishment.”  Many presumed she was being prepared to succeed her brother because at the same time the press was agog over the persistent health rumors and months-long disappearances from the public eye that have plagued Kim Jong Un.

I never thought this was likely. For one, there was a strange element of wish fulfillment to this speculation, as if editorial pages viewed Kim Yo Jong succeeding her brother as absolute ruler of the Hermit Kingdom to be somehow and oddly progressive.  Did they expect her to make structural reforms, relax oppression, or reopen the country to the world?  I am sure there are some third wave feminist denuclearization advocates who would argue that her ascension would resolve the peace process.

In my assessment, Kim Yo Jong’s media prominence reflects the opposite of the idea that she is a serious contender to replace her brother.  She is used as a Regime mouthpiece to convey messages that have the official imprimatur, not only from her official positions but also in her familial status. She can issue the Regime’s trademark bombastic and pugilist tone with undeniable rhetorical authority.  Kim Yo Jong is still a Kim family member after all.  No one could doubt that her words are meant to convey authority. 

Importantly, she can do so in a way that does not commit the Supreme Leader to a course of action. A Kim Yo Jong warning invites the adversary to respond “before it is too late.”

Using Kim Yo Jong in this way actually adds to Kim Jong Un’s mystique: i.e., he does not speak often, but when he does, thou shalt listen.

The Regime is media savvy (its crude insults notwithstanding).  As someone who has actually met and negotiated with North Koreans, I can tell you the leadership knows exactly how we perceive them and use this to their advantage.  A Kim Yo Jong statement can lead to a flurry of activity in Seoul, Washington, and Tokyo. 

When I was special advisor for North Korea, a media alert on either Kim’s statement about military action or, in one specific example, the impending destruction of the Kaesong Liaison Office, could get me to drop what I was doing in the middle of the evening and either head to work or start sending emails to the higher-ups in the Department.

Beyond this “clearly official but not final” Regime spokeswoman role, Kim Yo Jong likely functions as a chief of staff and gatekeeper for the military, state, and party apparatus.  In North Korea, one’s official position is not as important as their proximity to the leader, which Kim Yo Jong is probably charged with guarding. Kim Jong Un would only trust her in this role if she were both viewed as supremely loyal while also not considered too ambitious and a serious candidate to succeed him.

So what about his daughter Ju Ae?  Are her frequent appearances with her father a sign of likely succession planning? Also, I do not think so.

Some of the speculation about Kim’s daughter appearing in public is because it feels unusual. And it is. For all of his many faults, Kim Jong Un has worked to demystify his image in the country.  With that comes a demystification of the Regime’s members.

Whereas his grandfather Kim Il Sung was the infallible, near-divine founder of the State possessed of all worldly virtues, his son and second-generation ruler Kim Jong Il was a demigod whom nature itself knelt before and celebrated.  Kim Jong Il’s chief virtue, the propagandists crafted, was supernatural concern for his people. Working himself to death in constant struggle for them is what killed him according to the official hagiography.

Kim Jong Un appears to shun these characterizations. It still creeps in occasionally with the way he tries to emulate Kim Il Sung in dress and mannerism. However, Kim Jong Un is presented as a family man embodying the virtues of the Korean people. He suffered COVID-19 and the economic crises with his people. He celebrates major milestones with them.

Kim is believed to have three children, one of which is reportedly a son. If the son exists, it is almost certain he has not yet been revealed.  North Korea likes to practice what Morgan Clippinger called in 1981 quasi-religious and gnostic “semi esoteric communication.”

Before Kim Jong Il’s unveiling as heir apparent, state media referred to him as the “glorious party center” among other titles less befitting a human being than an institution. Kim Jong Il was more than a man, he was an idea incarnate. 

Kim Jong Il had three known sons, one of whom Kim Jong Un had murdered in a Malaysian airport. By all accounts, Kim Jong Un had been heir presumptive for some time, and his father was grooming him for his arrival on the national scene.  However, Kim Jong Il’s rapidly deteriorating health meant Kim Jong Un did not have time for a methodical coming out party.

I argue there is no reason to believe Kim Jong Un’s son, if he has one, will be introduced on a speedier timeline. Kim Jong Un likely believes he has years, even decades, to prepare.  Announcing his son too early would only invite the threat of alternative power bases arising around his son.

If that is the case, it is obvious why his daughter Ju-ae is seen in public with her dad frequently. It is for the same reason Kim Yo Jong is the Regime messenger,  Ju-ae will not succeed her father.  No one in North Korea thinks she will. But she is useful for the messages the Regime wants to send.

At present, I don’t believe North Korea is primed to accept a female heir, nor do I think Kim Jong Un intends to try. I could be wrong about that, and if I am I will be the first to acknowledge it and write a piece explaining where my analysis went wrong.

A 19FortyFive Contributing Editor, Anthony W. Holmes is a Florida-based senior non-resident fellow at Project 2049 and was special advisor to the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs from 2017-2021. You can connect with him on LinkedIn.

Written By

Anthony W. Holmes was a special advisor for North Korea in the Office of the Secretary of Defense from 2017-2021. He co-represented the Department of Defense at the first summit between the United States and North Korea in Singapore. He is a senior non-resident fellow at the Project 2049 Institute.  The views expressed are the author’s alone and do not necessarily represent the views of any agency. He currently lives in Florida.