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N Korea at crossroads

Kim Jong Un's sister and the fight for North Korea's bloodline

Kim Yo Jong must win over family members to be next in line to lead

TOKYO -- The mystery surrounding the North Korea's "sacred" bloodline, and who is next in the line of succession, has only grown since Kim Jong Un's public reemergence last week.

Kim's appearance put to rest the notion that he was gravely ill -- or even dead, but not to rumors that he suffers from chronic health problems. And the rising profile of his younger sister 32-year-old Kim Yo Jong has sparked speculation that she is being positioned to be next in line.

When Kim cut a ribbon at the opening ceremony for a new fertilizer plant in the western city of Sunchon on May 1, it was Kim Yo Jong who gave him the scissors. She played a similar role at Kim Jong Un's 2018 summit with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, bringing the Northern leader a pen at a signing ceremony.

North Korea strictly controls who may come in physical contact with its supreme leader. Kim is particularly nervous about poison, which is widely believed to have been used to assassinate rulers and heirs throughout Korean history.

"Every piece of paper in every document that goes to him each day is disinfected," said a former senior official in the Workers' Party of Korea.

Kim may have disappeared from public view for three weeks because he had left Pyongyang to avoid coronavirus infection -- or because he was infected himself.

"It is possible that Kim skipped a major ceremony marking the birthday of his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, as a protective measure," South Korean Minister of Unification Kim Yeon-chul told lawmakers on April 28.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un cuts a ribbon at an opening ceremony for a fertilizer plant last week with his younger sister Kim Yo Jong.   © Reuters

That the North Korean leader is now bringing his sister with him on economic trips appears to be a sign of his great trust in her -- and only her -- to handle anything unexpected that may arise on the road.

South Korea's National Intelligence Service reported to lawmakers Wednesday that the North's government continued operating as normal even in late April, amid rumors sparked by U.S. media reports that Kim was at death's door.

But some still speculate that the 36-year-old leader had some sort of noncritical health problem. Footage and images from the fertilizer plant ceremony show Kim's left foot dragging, an apparent surgical scar on his wrist and swelling of his face. He was also shown to be keeping up his notorious smoking habit despite these possible signs of trouble.

A July 2016 NIS report said Kim may be suffering from diabetes, high blood pressure, gout, heart disease or other conditions that stem from an unhealthy lifestyle. The leader's weight had surged to 130 kg from 90 kg in 2012 due to stress-induced insomnia, overeating and binge drinking, according to the report.

"He is obviously in very poor health," said Bruce Klingner, a former intelligence officer and currently senior research fellow at the think tank Heritage Foundation. "He is wildly obese, said to be 5 ft 6 [1.7 meters] and 300 pounds [136 kg], and seems to struggle to breathe."

Klingner said that North Korean watchers had noted when Kim planted a tree in the Panmunjom truce village with South Korea President Moon Jae-in in April 2018, it was the younger Kim who was "huffing and puffing."

Observers said that Kim seemed out of shape at a 2018 tree planting ceremony with South Korean President Moon Jae-in.   © Reuters

Amid the speculation over Kim's health, the question remains who would succeed him. 

North Korea's next leader is unlikely to come from outside the so-called Mount Paektu bloodline -- the lineage tracing back to founder Kim Il Sung. This family connection forms a basis for justifying dynastic rule in an avowedly socialist country. 

The past two transfers of power were marked by sibling rivalry and transition periods with a regent-like figure to guide the new leader. But a succession now would come at a time of no definitive successor within the "sacred" bloodline. Kim Jong Un's three children are said to be younger than 10 years old.

The elder of his two brothers, Kim Jong Nam, was murdered with VX nerve agent at a Malaysian airport in 2017. The next-oldest brother, Kim Jong Chol, is an elusive figure even within his own country and holds no leadership role. His sister Kim Yo Jong, on the other hand, is involved right at the center of power.

Recent developments suggest Kim Yo Jong has made rapid strides within North Korea's political establishment. In March, she issued a statement as first deputy director of the Workers' Party's propaganda department regarding a personal letter from U.S. President Donald Trump to the North Korean leader. The following month, she was reinstated as an alternate member of the party's Politburo.

Yet North Korea watchers question whether a relatively young woman can take control of an authoritarian nation with strong overtones of patriarchy stemming from Confucian tradition. Amid these doubts are other enigmatic signs within the Kim family.  

Back in November, Kim Pyong Il, Kim Il Sung's son and former ambassador to the Czech Republic, was summoned home for the first time in three decades. The North Korean founder's son-in-law Kim Kwang Sop also reportedly stepped down as ambassador to Austria and returned home.

Meanwhile, Kim Jong Un's aunt, Kim Kyong Hui, reappeared in public in January after a six-year absence following the execution of her husband, Jang Song Thaek. Some say she was a fake. Still, reports of her watching a show with Kim Jong Un and Kim Yo Jong was likely intended to send some sort of message.

A woman said to be Kim's aunt, seated on the right, appeared in January, but some said she was a fake.   © Kyodo

North Korea has not explained these recent moves. But they may be intended to smooth the way for Kim Yo Jong to eventually take over.

"If Kim Jong Un were to pass away, there is no evidence of a difference in policy among the potential successors," said Heritage's Klingner. "There doesn't seem to be a faction pressing for a soft stance versus a harsh stance, so whoever is next, they will still have the same policy."

For a young, female leader in a patriarchal society, the biggest threat would likely come from other members of the bloodline. Wooing overseas family before they start reacting to rumors of Kim Jong Un's health removes some of that risk. It could also stoke interest in the "royal" family among the North Korean public, and help strengthen the regime's grip on power.

Kim Jong Un has been quick to silence and eliminate his aides, and never allowed anyone to become his clear second-in-command.

If a power struggle were to erupt, however, Klingner fears it could become ugly and dangerous. "If there was an internal explosion, North Korea may very well lash out at its neighbors."

Additional reporting by Ken Moriyasu in New York.

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