Mixed signals for North Korean leader’s sister as Kim Jong Un seeks to cement power

Kim Yo Jong, Mr Kim Jong Un’s sister, was not included on the Central Committee's politburo list.
Kim Yo Jong, Mr Kim Jong Un’s sister, was not included on the Central Committee's politburo list.PHOTOS: ST FILE, REUTERS/KCNA

SEOUL (REUTERS) - The name of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s sister was missing from a new list of the ruling Workers’ Party’s powerful politburo, according to state media KCNA on Monday (Jan 11), sending mixed signals about her status after years of increasing clout. 

The party held elections on Sunday for its Central Committee during its ongoing multi-year congress which maps out diplomatic, military and economic policy goals over the next five years. 

Ms Kim Yo Jong, Mr Kim Jong Un’s sister, remained a member of the Central Committee but was not included on its politburo list, KCNA showed. 

In 2017, she became only the second woman in patriarchal North Korea to join the exclusive politburo after her aunt Kim Kyong Hui and South Korea’s intelligence agency said in August she was serving as the leader’s "de facto second-in-command."

But the signals were mixed for observers of the reclusive regime. Her absence from the politburo list comes days after she took the leadership podium for the first time alongside 38 other party executives as the congress began. 

"It is too early to draw any conclusion about her status, as she is still a Central Committee member and there’s a possibility that she has taken up other important posts," said Professor Lim Eul-chul, a North Korean studies expert at Kyungnam University in Seoul. 

Ms Kim Yo Jong's influence has grown dramatically in recent years. 

As she emerged as a political figure, she appeared to be her brother’s personal secretary. She later acted as his special envoy to South Korea and a deputy director of a party department overseeing personnel and organisational affairs. 

Mr Michael Madden, a North Korea leadership expert at the US-based Stimson Center, said Ms Kim Yo Jong enjoyed the highest degree of influence on policy deliberations and decisions regardless of whether she was on the politburo or not. 

"We have become accustomed to seeing her in a more public role, but Kim Yo Jong’s political roots and her formative career experience are behind the scenes, not sitting on a platform listening to speeches," he said. 

Leader Kim Jong Un cemented his power at the congress with his election as party general secretary, taking the title from his late father, Kim Jong Il.

Mr Kim has wielded almost absolute power in dynastically ruled North Korea since taking over following the death of his father Kim Jong Il in 2011.

In 2012, the party named Kim Jong Il "eternal general secretary" and Mr Kim Jong Un "the first secretary" at a conference. 

KCNA said the congress "fully approved" a proposal to promote Mr Kim to the position, which it called "the top brain of the revolution" and "the centre of the leadership and the unity".

"Kim’s takeover showed his confidence that he has now officially joined the ranks of his father and grandfather," said Prof Yang Moo-jin from the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul. 

"It also indicates his strategic intention to centralise the party system around him and reinforce his one-man rule."

The reforms to the party leadership announced over the weekend may seem cosmetic to outside observers but they are arcane changes to how policies are decided and implemented, Mr Madden said. 

"These changes are intended to give (Kim) a great degree of flexibility in how he makes decisions while also streamlining the processes through which decisions reach his desk," he said.

The elections also highlighted the stellar rise of Mr Jo Yong Won, who was newly named to the politburo’s five-strong presidium and the party’s formidable Central Military Commission. 

Mr Choe Son Hui, a vice-foreign minister who was instrumental in preparing for a second, failed summit with US President Donald Trump in 2019, was demoted. 

South Korean President Moon Jae-in pledged efforts to help engineer a breakthrough in stalled denuclearisation talks as US President-elect Joe Biden prepares to take office. 

Mr Kim has said he would expand diplomacy, but vowed on Friday to continue developing weapons including a "multi-warhead" intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), calling the United States "our biggest enemy."

South Korea’s military said it has detected signs North Korea held a military parade on Sunday night to mark the congress. In October, Pyongyang unveiled a new ICBM on a 11-axile transporter vehicle at a predawn parade.