LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
This spring, despite rumors, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un proved he was not dead. But he's rarely appeared in public the last few months, just as his sister has increased her visibility. Kim Yo Jong has even weighed in on North Korean relations with the United States, saying another summit is unlikely. As NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports, many observers are now wondering, could she become the country's first female leader?
(SOUNDBITE OF RALLY)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Korean).
ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: "Rip apart the defectors, the traitors and the human trash," demonstrators chanted at a rally in North Korea last month, reported by state media. It's part of a campaign led by Kim Yo Jong to punish the South for allowing defectors to send propaganda leaflets into the North criticizing her brother. Last month, Kim Yo Jong issued a statement ordering an inter-Korean liaison office in the North's Kaesong city to be blown up.
Kim Seung-chul, a defector who runs the Seoul-based North Korea Reform Radio, says that Kim Yo Jong is still a political novice. But her prominent role in the campaign against South Korea marks an upgrade to her political status.
KIM SEUNG-CHUL: (Speaking Korean).
KUHN: "She's gone from being her brother's proxy," he says, "to his protocol assistant, to his eyes and ears, to a punisher." Kim Seung-chul says her turn on the international stage came two years ago in South Korea.
KIM: (Speaking Korean).
KUHN: "The decisive moment," he says, "was when she came to the Pyeongchang Olympic Games in 2018."
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Korea.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Non-English language spoken).
KUHN: Kim Yo Jong sat with President Moon Jae-in, Vice President Mike Pence and other heads of state at the Winter Games opening ceremony. She later assisted her brother at summits with President Trump in Singapore and Hanoi. Kim Yo Jong is now widely seen as North Korea's de facto No. 2 leader.
Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Kookmin University in Seoul, says Kim Jong Un's recent disappearance, apparently due to an unknown illness, cemented his sister's new role.
ANDREI LANKOV: Of course, this make more necessary for him to have a trusted deputy. And this person has to come from the, if you like, royal family, from the ruling clan. And in the ruling clan, they have now a shortage of adults.
KUHN: Lankov's not kidding about the royal family. He says North Korea is essentially a hereditary monarchy. In the 1990s, he notes, Kim Jong Un's father, Kim Jong Il, was assisted by his sister.
LANKOV: So there is nothing unusual about, say, a sibling of the current leader to be his second-in-command. It's actually a very well-established tradition of the Kim family.
KUHN: What is unusual in North Korea is female leaders. Lim Soon-hee, an expert on women in North Korea, now retired from the Korean Institute of National Unification, a government think tank in Seoul, explains.
LIM SOON-HEE: (Through interpreter) The North Korean system is fundamentally patriarchal. The government tells the people that they form one big socialist family.
KUHN: The father of this metaphorical family, she explains, is Kim Jong Un. The mother is the ruling Workers' Party. The children are the North Korean people. And the father's authority is unchallenged. Lim says Kim Jong Un reportedly has three small children who are too young to rule. She believes Kim Yo Jong's most likely future role is not that of successor, but instead a regent or caretaker until Kim Jong Un's son is old enough to take over.
LIM: (Through interpreter) Kim Yo Jong herself would not hope to be a successor, although she may have a strong will to acquire greater practical power. She is smart enough to know that it wouldn't be easy for a woman.
KUHN: Women in North Korea, she adds, don't dare compare themselves with men.
Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.
(SOUNDBITE OF BIBIO'S "THE MILKY WAY OVER RATLINGHOPE")
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