Kim Yo Jong: The most powerful woman in North Korea

In the hermit kingdom where patriarchy rules, Kim Yo Jong has found herself in the high ranks of North Korea's political elite. But what do we know about her?

Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
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The 35-year-old Kim Yo Jong has increasingly become the face of North Korea’s secretive and combative regime. The younger sister to dictator Kim Jong Un led the state delegation at the Winter Olympics in South Korea. She met then-President Donald Trump in 2018. She has made major announcements on the world stage, including last week’s launch of a spy satellite, prompting the United Nations Security Council to hold an emergency meeting.

Her title is officially “deputy department director of the Publicity and Information Department,” but there has long been speculation that she is being set up for a bigger role.

When rumors about Kim Jong Un’s health began in 2020, she was cited as a likely successor.

Kim Yo Jong, left, stands behind Kim Jong Un as he and Donald Trump sign documents in 2018.
Kim Yo Jong, left, stands behind Kim Jong Un as he and Donald Trump sign documents that acknowledge the progress of the talks held between North Korea and the United States in 2018. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Whoever rules North Korea wields enormous power given the authoritarian kingdom’s nuclear weapons and constant threats to use them against the U.S. and its allies. But what is known about Kim Yo Jong?

Yahoo News spoke to two experts: Sung-Yoon Lee, author of “The Sister: North Korea’s Kim Yo Jong, the Most Dangerous Woman in the World,” and Edward Howell, a lecturer in politics and international relations at the University of Oxford, about the princess and her rise through the ranks of North Korean politics.

Who is Kim Yo Jong?

Howell: She’s the younger sister of Kim Jong Un and the youngest child of the former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. What we know is that she was born and raised in North Korea but also studied abroad in Switzerland, together with her brothers, under a pseudonym.

Kim Yo Jong talks with Chung Eui-yong, South Korea's top national security adviser at the time, in Panmunjom, South Korea, in 2019.
Kim Yo Jong talks with Chung Eui-yong, South Korea's top national security adviser at the time, in Panmunjom, South Korea, in 2019. (South Korean Ministry of Unification via Getty Images)

What do we know about her political career?

Howell: What’s interesting about Yo Jong is that she has risen through the ranks as a member of the junior elite in the Workers’ Party of Korea. She worked for the National Defense Commission — the most important institution for national defense. She was then appointed to the Publicity and Information Department in 2014 — one of the main departments of the party and one that is responsible for disseminating propaganda across the kingdom. Over time, she gets promoted to different departments within the party, and in 2021, she was promoted to the State Affairs Commission, which is the most important body of state power over North Korea.

Why has Kim Jong Un chosen her?

Howell: I think she’s useful [to the party] because she reinforces North Korea’s messaging that South Korea and the United States are fundamentally hostile actors, the idea that the outside world will never fundamentally be nice to North Korea, and that North Korea must act accordingly. She has been seen as a sort of unifier among factions within the military and the party.

How significant is it that a woman is in the high ranks of the North Korean regime?

Lee: The rise of a “Nuclear Despotess” is an entirely new phenomenon. North Korea is such a male-dominated, chauvinistic country despite claiming to be a communist system that guarantees gender equality. This sudden rise of a female leader, a sort of a co-crime boss of the family, is in itself an interesting phenomenon. In the past, we’ve seen the royal family, for example, the younger sister of other kids play an important role, but not nearly as important or visible a role as that played by Yo Jong over the past five or six years.

Kim Jong Un signs papers with assistance from younger sister Kim Yo Jong in Pyongyang, North Korea.
Kim Jong Un and his younger sister Kim Yo Jong in Pyongyang, North Korea. (Pyeongyang Press Corps/Pool/AFLO via ZUMA Press)

What do the high-ranking officials think about her?

Lee: Senior political figures avert their gaze whenever she makes an appearance. They don’t want to be noticed by her because she is such an oddity as a young, powerful person and sister of the supreme leader. There have been reports of her issuing random orders of execution of officials who get on her nerves. It’s hard to corroborate these reports, but they have come from many different regions inside the nation.

With all of her recent public appearances, is she being primed as Kim Jong Un’s successor?

Lee: A lot of North Korean defectors take the view that there could never be a female leader and they may be right. But I humbly disagree, because I would argue that the North Korean dynasty’s supposedly sacred hereditary bloodline supersedes chauvinistic cultural considerations.