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If North Korea's Kim Jong Un dies, who will be his successor?

Sunday April 26, 2020
By Tyler Dawson

It could be his sister, but 'if Kim Jong Un dies, at the same time Kim Yo-jong also will be out, too,' said a North Korean defector

North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un sits in his vehicle after arriving at a railway station in Dong Dang, Vietnam, at the border with China, February 26, 2019.Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters

Speculation about the future of the despotic regime has been swirling since media reports of varying credibility indicated that Kim Jong Un might be near death after he failed to appear at the April 15 celebration of the founding of the country.

On Friday, Reuters reported that China had sent a team including medical experts to the reclusive nation, though the news agency said it could not confirm what the trip signified in terms of the leader’s health.

Intelligence services have cast doubt on the notion that Kim is near death, but if it turns out to be true, and the obese, heavy-smoking kingpin dies, the question of who will replace him will have major geopolitical implications.

Much of the chatter suggests his younger sister, Kim Yo-jong, could take over. But, in a patriarchal nation, that might be a tough sell.

She is, according to research on the reclusive nation, already referred to as “No. 2,” writes Robert Collins, an analyst with the Committee for Human Rights in North Korea in a report on the North Korean power structure.

“Party cadre are reported to both fear and respect her,” Collins notes in the report.

The nation, sandwiched between South Korea and China, has been ruled since the 1940s by a family dynasty. The first leader and national founder, Kim Il-sung, ruled from 1948 until 1994; his eldest son, Kim Jong-il, took over as planned upon his father’s death.

When Kim died in 2011, another dynastic heir, Kim Jong Un, took charge.

In autumn 2014, when Kim Jong-un was ill and out of the spotlight for six weeks, Kim Yo-jong reportedly took over some of his official duties; she continues to hold several key positions within the country. The two studied together in Switzerland, though reports differ on just how close they were while abroad.

Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, arrives at the opening ceremony of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games on Fe. 9, 2018. Patrick Semansky - Pool /Getty Images

She’s been seen in public frequently. She was present at meetings between Kim Jong Un and U.S. President Donald Trump in early 2019. And, she was seen representing North Korea at the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea — standing near U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence.

“I think the report was incorrect,” Trump told reporters Thursday when asked about Kim’s health.

Kim Yo-jong is also the country’s chief propagandist, and has made pronouncements on nuclear weapons and South Korea. Unsurprisingly, she has also been sanctioned by the United States, in November 2017, for human rights abuses.

“As the younger sister of North Korea’s Supreme Leader, Kim Yo-jong is part of the ‘Paektu bloodline’ which is considered within Kim regime ideology as ‘royal blood,’ and therefore justifies the continuity of the Kim family’s dominance of leadership in North Korea,” writes Collins.

U.S. President Donald Trump meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, in Panmunjom, South Korea, June 30, 2019. Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

Not much is known about her personal life: rumours suggest she is married and that she may have one or more children.

Kim Jong Un also has a son (and possibly two other children). The Daily Beast notes the known son is “about 10” years old, raising the possibility that Kim Yo-jong might act as regent until the boy is of age to take over the rule of the country of some 26 million people.

Then again, who knows.

Ken Eom, a North Korean defector who served a decade in the military, told the Daily Beast that Kim Yo-jong “has great power to control the North Korean elite, but if Kim Jong-un is out or dies, she cannot continuously keep power.”

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence (front) watches the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games with North Korea’s ceremonial head of state Kim Yong Nam (back 2nd R) and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong (back R) at the Pyeongchang Stadium on February 9, 2018. PATRICK SEMANSKY/AFP/Getty Images

“North Korea doesn’t accept woman’s power,” Eom reportedly said. “This means … if Kim Jong Un dies, at the same time Kim Yo-jong also will be out, too.”

There are a few other candidates in the mix.

Kim Jong-chol is Kim Jong-un’s elder brother.

The Independent, citing a former deputy ambassador who defected to the south, reported that Kim Jong-chol “is said to have been more keen on music and playing guitar than politics, and is living a quiet life away from the spotlight in North Korea.”

The Independent says he was seen in 2011 at an Eric Clapton concert in Singapore.

As well, there could be several top-ranking members who could hold office, though analysts speculate this would again be in some form of regency — the top job, presumably, needs to go to someone of the Kim bloodline.

Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un attends a wreath-laying ceremony at Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi, Vietnam March 2, 2019. Jorge Silva/Pool/Reuters


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