Sister Act: Rapid Rise of North Korean Leader’s New Top Aide


During Friday’s Olympic opening ceremonies, South Korea’s president greeted world leaders gathered for the Games. He also shook hands with a woman more important for her family ties than her official government post:

Kim Yo Jong,

the sister of North Korean leader

Kim Jong Un.

Ms. Kim is the first member of North Korea’s ruling family to visit the South since the Korean War in the early 1950s. Through skillful maneuvering, she has emerged as a close confidante of her older brother, serving as his emissary amid the country’s nuclear standoff with Seoul and Washington.

She arrived Friday in South Korea on her brother’s private plane and is scheduled to have lunch with South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Saturday.

Ms. Kim’s rise contrasts with the demise of other members of Pyongyang’s ruling family.

In 2013, Mr. Kim executed his uncle after accusing him of building a rival power base. Last year, his half-brother was killed in a Malaysian airport. North Korea denied involvement, but the U.S. and others say an assassination order was almost certainly given by the North Korean leader.

While the men represented potential challenges to Mr. Kim’s leadership, close observers of North Korea say Ms. Kim, who is around 30 years old, has gained her brother’s confidence by bolstering his rule.

Ms. Kim is often shown with a pen and notepad, writing down comments made by Mr. Kim when he tours construction projects, shoe factories and other sites around North Korea. Ahead of one of her brother’s speeches, Ms. Kim was shown helping to prepare the text and applauding vigorously afterward.

“She doesn’t try to outshine him, but rather completely supports him,” said

Jung Pak,

a Korea specialist at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank.

Ms. Kim hadn’t been seen or mentioned in North Korean state media until she was shown at the funeral of her father,

Kim Jong Il,

in December 2011. Even then, there was confusion over her identity; some outsiders guessed she was Kim Jong Un’s yet-to-be-revealed wife.

Three years later, North Korea confirmed Ms. Kim had been given a position in the central committee of the ruling Workers’ Party. Soon after, she had a clearer title: deputy director of the party’s propaganda and agitation department.

The position is among the most influential in the regime and has historical resonance: her father, Kim Jong Il, had the same role before being tapped to be North Korean leader.

“It’s a critical role that touches every area of North Korean politics and maintains ideological narratives key to regime stability,” said

Patrick McEachern,

an expert on North Korea and international affairs fellow at the Wilson Center in Washington.

Last year, Ms. Kim was named as an alternate member of North Korea’s Politburo, only the second woman to be elevated to the decision-making body. The U.S. sanctioned Ms. Kim last year for her role in the regime’s censorship and human-rights abuses.

Ms. Kim is believed to have spent two years at school in Switzerland at the same time as Kim Jong Un—a period that may have helped the siblings bond.

Accidents of birth have also worked in Ms. Kim’s favor. Kim Jong Un has an older brother,

Kim Jong Chol,

but a Korean emphasis on age-based seniority makes it hard for him to play a public supporting role to the leader, said

Ken Gause,

an expert on North Korea’s leadership at CNA in Arlington, Va.

It isn’t clear why previous leader Kim Jong Il passed over Kim Jong Chol in the transfer of power. According to an account in a book by

Kenji Fujimoto,

a former sushi chef for the Kim family, the elder Mr. Kim viewed Kim Jong Un’s character as better suited to leadership.

“The older brother, Jong Chol, had the warm heart of a girl,” Mr. Fujimoto wrote.

North Korea analysts say he likely has a role deep in the regime’s security or financing operations.

An importance placed by North Korea on direct blood links to its leaders further buttresses Ms. Kim’s position. Both of the Kim family members killed under Kim Jong Un’s rule have been from side branches of the family:

Kim Jong Nam,

the half-brother assassinated in Malaysia last year, has a different mother than Kim Jong Un, while the uncle executed in 2013,

Jang Song Thaek,

married into the family. Kim Yo Jong shares the same parents as Kim Jong Un.

Mr. Gause speculates that Kim Jong Il advised Kim Jong Un to keep his sister close, much as the elder Mr. Kim had done with his own sister,

Kim Kyong Hui.

The elder Ms. Kim provided support to Kim Jong Il, particularly after he suffered a suspected stroke in 2008. She had important titles in the Workers’ Party and later, the military. She was the only other female Politburo member.

Kim Yo Jong is likely being groomed to step into the shoes of Kim Kyong Hui, Mr. Gause says.

“She will be the most trusted adviser to Kim Jong Un, and his eyes and ears on the regime. The last line of defense. She isn’t there yet, but that seems to be the plan,” he said.

Write to Alastair Gale at

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