By Mikala Sorenson for Global Risk Insights
The northern half of the Korean peninsula is infamous for its opacity. The little that does leak out are usually stories pieced together by observers looking for hints and traces of information in official pictures or in statements publicized by the regime.
This autumn, between September 3 and October 14, Kim Jong-un disappeared from the public eye entirely with plenty of gossip to follow. Speculation abounded, suggesting that his poor health had reached a critical point, that a coup from within the Party had dethroned the young Kim or that his alleged addiction to Swiss cheese and several other less-than-healthy habits were causing the heavy man to suffer from gout along with hyperuricemia, hyperlipidemia, obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure.
During the absence of Kim Jong-un, his sister Kim Yo-jong was seen assuming a more visible role. Michael Madden, who runs the blog North Korea Leadership Watch, says she has been identified in North Korean media as deputy director of the Workers’ Party, a very powerful position. Kim Yo-jong, who is in her mid-twenties, is seemingly being slow tracked into the governing elite of North Korea, having appeared at Party functions since early 2014. She went to the same Swiss boarding school as her brother, and it is said that she was very close to their father, Kim Jong-il.
The cause for Kim Jong-un’s disappearance from the scene has since been determined to be ankle surgery, according to the South Korean intelligence agency. A foreign doctor operated on Kim’s left ankle to remove a cyst, a condition known as tarsal tunnel syndrome. The North Korean leader re-appeared thinner and with a limp at a visit to a newly-built residential district and the Natural Energy Institute of the State Academy of Sciences.
The question remains whether his sister will become a more prominent figure in the DPRK leadership. Her emergence in the media happened shortly after the execution of Kim Jong-un’s uncle, Jang Sok-thaeng, and his entire family. The uncle was accused of plotting a coup against Kim Jong-un.
To understand why Kim Yo-jong will likely take a more prominent role in the DPRK leadership, it is best to explain the importance of narrative in the North Korean power structure. Kim Yong-un, and his father and grandfather even more so, are cast as infallible characters with more in common with gods than men. Jang’s wife, Kim Kyong Hui, was Kim Jong-il’s sister and assisted her brother loyally in various important Party roles.
The founder of the DPRK, eternal president Kim Il-sung, is said to have ruled with a sibling – his brother Kim Yong-ju – by his side. That is, until he was demoted due to differences in ideology; Kim Il-sung’s Juche and personality cult clashed with Kim Yong-ju’s Marxism. The purge of Jang Sok-thaeng and his family and the rise of Kim Yo-jong marks a break with the old power elites of Kim Jong-il and provides a sense of continuity and link to the past.
Thinking DPRK is a dictatorship with an all-powerful man at the top is flawed, although this is certainly the picture the regime wants to paint. It is more likely that Kim Jong-un probably has relatively little influence, at least according to Jang Jin-sung, a former key member of Kim Jong-il’s propaganda machine. Jang asserts that the country is effectively run by the Organization and Guidance Department (OGD), leaving Kim Jong-un as the figurehead only. However, as long as the DPRK resembles a totalitarian monarchy deifying its supreme leader, the figurehead and his close family are key assets for the OGD to manage.