The mystery surrounding Kim Jong Un’s failing health exposes uncertainty about North Korea’s line of succession and, despite the male-dominated regime, his sister, Kim Yo Jong, could be his successor.
It has been assumed that a woman could never become the leader of North Korea, a totalitarian country that is locked in a time warp and resistant to progressive attitudes promoted elsewhere in the world.
For the last 72 years, the nation has been ruled by three men — founder, son and grandson — but Kim Jong Un’s possible death or incapacity positions his sister, Kim Yo Jong, as a logical successor.
After Kim Jong Un failed to attend ceremonies celebrating his grandfather’s birthday on 15 April — a calendar event he has never missed since becoming leader nine years ago — the international media reported he was in a critical condition following surgery. Although only in his mid-30s, Kim Jong Un is known to smoke, drink and eat to excess.
But would North Korean elites accept a female member of the Kim family as their next leader? Kim Yo Jong was reportedly a favorite of her father, Kim Jong Il, who ruled between 1994 and 2011. However, she only became known during her father’s funeral procession, and has moved gradually into the spotlight in a supporting role to her brother.
Unlike Kim Jong Un’s glamorous wife, Yo Jong is a pale, waif-like figure who dresses demurely and seems to quietly get on with her political duties. These include the roles of an alternate member of the Politburo, reportedly only the second woman ever to hold that position.
She was educated in both Europe and Kim Il Sung University, studying engineering or computer science. Now a mother in her 30s, some reports — unconfirmed by the secretive regime — claim her husband is the son of Choe Ryong Hae, the ceremonial head of state, and the second most powerful man in North Korea. It is speculated he could forge a joint leadership with Kim Yo Jong.
Other commentators claim the country is not yet ready to accept a woman as its leader. Kang Mi-jin, a journalist in Seoul who defected from North Korea in 2009, said: “I do not think the people will allow it”.
Kim Jong Un himself has a son and daughter, but they are deemed too young to succeed. He also has an older brother, Kim Jong Chol, but he is also rumoured to be in ill health, and was dismissed by his father as being “too girly” for consideration.
Among other adult males in the family, Kim Pyong Il, a half-brother of Kim Jong Il, is an outside contender. But Kim Yo Jong has the bloodline in her favour — if the ‘hermit nation’ can accept as woman as their next leader.