What Kim Yo Jong’s rise to the top says — and doesn’t say — about being a woman in North Korea

It was 2001 and the North Korean leader toured the country for three weeks. Accompanying him was Konstantin Pulikovsky, a respected Russian diplomat who, as the story goes, took the rare opportunity with one of the world's most withdrawn leaders to talk about family.

Kim is believed to have had seven children. His youngest son and future successor, Kim Jong Un, was in his mid-teens at the time. It was only several years later that the North Korean leader's health would begin to fail him, and it is not clear if he had begun to think about the legacy and how to keep the family dynasty going.


So when Pulikovsky asked about the children, Kim spoke highly of her two daughters.

Michael Madden, an expert on North Korea's management who runs a website on the subject and is a government consultant, said he repeated that anecdote many times over the years when asked about the Kim family. The story has been repeated in various media and academic reports several times since 2001, but CNN could not independently confirm it.

"Kim Jong Il loved his sons, but didn't necessarily have a high opinion of what they were doing with life," Madden said.

Kim Jong Il, right, and Konstantin Pulikovsky, who was the Russian president's representative in the East, are seen in the Russian city of Vladivostok on July 26, 2001.
Despite the apparent assessment, Kim eventually chose his youngest son to succeed him. The grooming process began about eight years later, in 2009, when Kim Jong-un got an upcoming party. Kim Jong Il died of a heart attack two years later.
Although it is likely that the world will never know if Kim seriously considered one of his daughters for the top job, he was worshiping for his youngest child, Kim Yo Jong, has been well documented by North Korean standards. Kenji Fujimoto, the pen name of a former sushi chef for the Kim family, told The Washington Post that Kim Jong Il referred to her as "Princess Yo Jong" and "sweet Yo Jong." Kim Yo Jong always sat to his father's left supper, while Kim Jong Il's wife sat to his right, Fujimoto said in a book about her experience in North Korea.

However, Kim Jong Il may think it would be a tough seller to name a woman as the next North Korean leader – especially with several sons available.

North Korea is a notorious patriarchal country, where women are expected to be conscientious and subordinate wives and prickly mothers before anything else. Defenders say misogyny, gender discrimination and sexual violence are widespread.


"It's a base culture with only very strong, traditional patriarchal gender norms and female power," said Sokeel Park, director of research and strategy for Liberty in North Korea, a human rights group that assists shoppers.

Nevertheless, Kim Yo Jong's position among the North Korean leadership is significant. Her name was among the first mentioned as a possible successor to her brother when he almost disappeared from public view three weeks, just to appear in state media Saturday with Kim Yo Jong by his side.
A photo released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency on May 2 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at an event in South Pyongan Province with sister Kim Yo Yong, on the left. CNN cannot independently confirm the reporting of KCNA.
Kim Jong Un's mysterious absence raised important questions about North Korea plans for the future – especially given that he is overweight and reportedly both a heavy smoker and drinker.

Experts say that if something should happen to him before his young children are old enough to take over, Kim Yo Jong could be the safest and most likely heir.

If she succeeded Kim, It would put a woman at the center of one of the most repressive regimes on the planet.

Kim Yo Jong attends a wreath-laying ceremony at Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi March 2, 2019.

sex Sharing

The Korean Peninsula is not an easy place to be a woman.


North Korea is hardly the bastion of equality that Kim Il Sung promised would be achieved through economic liberation.


While women are an important part of the workforce, and drivers of the limited private markets in the country – since all men have jobs assigned by the state – female shoppers say they still face widespread discrimination. Furthermore, they lack the professional and social opportunities of their male colleagues.

"Women must always be modest," said Nara Kang, who left North Korea in 2015 and now lives in the South. "Men hold the purse strings many times, and men have all social status."

Sexual violence is also a major problem. It is "so commonplace that it has come to be accepted as part of ordinary life," Human Rights Watch claimed in a 2018 report.
North Korea denies this, as does all allegations of widespread abuse – such as it often refers to as an imperialist "human rights racket." "Women enjoy equal rights with men in all fields," diplomats from the country said wrote to a UN panel on women's issues in 2017.
Kang says the situation is better in South Korea, but that it is not ideal. The country ranks at the bottom of everyone OECD countries in terms of the gender pay gap. Women regularly face discrimination in the workplace and harassment in the public, including illegal filming on toilets.

Jean Lee, an Associated Press reporter who opened the Pyongyang Public Service Office in 2012, said she has endured "incredible sexism in both countries."

"My female North Korean counterparts had the same complaints as my female South Korean counterparts: that they were expected to do their job all day and still take care of all the cooking and cleaning at home," said Lee, who is now director of Hyundai Motor Vehicles. Korea Foundation Center for Korean History and Public Policy at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC.

"To be honest, neither Korea, North nor South is a great place to be a woman."

But the south has one calling card: it has had a female leader.

Park Geun-hye broke South Korea's highest glass ceiling in 2015 and became the country's first elected female president.

Madden, the North Korean leadership expert, believes that even though Park's tenure ended in scandal, she proved that a woman can be accepted as a leader in Korea – north or south.

"North Korea has a 70-year history of women being very close to the center of power, of being influential in North Korea's decision-making processes," he said.

"South Korea already broke the shape of the peninsula."

Kang, the defender, is not so sure. When asked if she lived in North Korea imagining it could be a female supreme leader, Kang replied incredulously.

"Oh no," she said. "I can't even imagine. Can't even dream."

An unbreakable bond

From the moment Kim Yo Jong set foot on South Korean soil in 2018, the cameras followed her everywhere. Her job was to represent her brother's regime at the Winter Olympics in the South Korean city of Pyeongchang, and she wasn't even the highest-ranking member of the broadcast – the title belonged to Kim Yong Nam, who was then North Korea's ceremonial head of state.

But Kim Yo Jong was the one who really made history. She became the first member of North Korea's ruling family to go south of the 38th parallel since 1953, when the Korean War actually ended (the war is still technically ongoing because the fighting parties signed a ceasefire, not a treaty.)

Experts knew Kim Yo Jong was one of the top executives' top aides and confidants. As Deputy Director of the Labor Party's propaganda and agitation department, she was responsible for creating her brother's public image and messages.

But the year before her visit to South Korea, she had also joined the country's Politburo – the senior body of the North Korean government – as an alternative member, adding another important title to her resume.

Kim Yo Jong, downtown, arrives at Jinbu Railway Station in Pyeongchang, South Korea on February 9, 2018.

But average South Koreans knew little else about her, and the mystery sparked curiosity. People were fascinated by this seemingly urban envoy from what is often portrayed as a backward country, representing a leader who at that time had not traveled abroad since he took power.

As governor of the South Korean province where the Olympics were held, Choi Moon soon met Kim Yo Jong. He described her as "very calm and self-possessed", a woman with "very few words" but who speaks precisely and directly.

During the tour, Kim Yo Jong cheered on the inter-Korean hockey team and took in the opening ceremonies with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and US Vice President Mike Pence, who chose not to shake hands. She was photographed watching events and performances, smiling and looking to get along well with her hosts. The press even resembled a North Korean Ivanka Trump.

It became a masterstroke in public relations by one of North Korea's best propagandists.

She put a human face on a regime that the Trump administration at the time was trying to punish as a pariah state and nuclear renegade. And she did while also laying the foundation for his brother's diplomatic push, which would see him become the first North Korean leader to ever meet face to face with a sitting US president.

The visit turned out not only to be Kim Yo Jong's upcoming party to the world; she showed how good she was at a role she had spent much of her life preparing for.

Dignitaries included (bottom left to right) South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Moon & # 39; & # 39; s wife Kim Jung-Sook, US Vice President Mike Pence, Pence & # 39; & # 39; s wife Karen Pence, Japan & # 39; & # 39; s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, North Korea & # 39; Ceremonial Head of State Kim Yong Nam (back, third right), Kim Yo Jong (back right) and German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier & # 39; s wife Elke Buedenbender (back right) attends the opening ceremony for the Winter Olympic Games Pyeongchang 2018.
Kim Yo Jong & # 39; s Exact birthday is unclear, but she is believed to be in her 30s. When she was sanctioned by the US Treasury for the regime's human rights abuses and extreme censorship activities, it was listed as September 26, 1989. But South Korean intelligence has said she was born was in 1987.

Further details of her childhood are scarce.

What we do know is this: Like Kim Jong Un, Kim Yo Jong studied in the Swiss capital Bern as a young child, told the aunt and uncle who helped raise them Washington Post in an interview. Madden said on her blog that she spent about four years there until she completed the corresponding sixth grade in the United States.

In Switzerland, the adults are around Kim Yo Jong and Kim Jong Un tried to give the children a normal life, but they all had to keep so many things secret – their real identities, their wealth and their mother's ongoing treatment for terminal breast cancer at the time.

The Kim siblings shared a childhood that was remarkable, but uniquely lonely and lonely. It was an experience that few can empathize with. Kim Jong Il would have been the one who decided to raise them together, and experts like Madden believe it may have been on purpose.

"As they get older and become more aware of the circumstances they grew up with, it's a pretty tough reality to face. And of course, it's a hard reality they meet," Madden said.

"Nobody can relate to it. Kim Yo Jong and Kim Jong Un, I think they have a relationship that is impossible to break."


Given the intense secrecy surrounding the Kim family, we may never know how difficult it was for Kim Yo Jong to transition from gender discrimination to rise to the top of North Korea's political hierarchy.

But Kim Yo Jong is no ordinary woman.

Kim Jong Il had more children than Jong Un and Yo Jong, and the siblings still have live aunts, uncles and siblings. But Madden says that Yo Jong and Jong Un are the only two living in state media as the true heirs to Kim Il Sung's "Paektu bloodline," a reference to the mythical mountain on North Korea's border with China.

"There is no other legitimate descendant of Kim Il Sung when it comes to North Korea's political culture," Madden said.

If Kim Jong Il wanted her near power, it is now clear that the deceased North Korean leader got his wish.

All the experts CNN spoke to for this story agreed with the theory that being a woman will not hold Kim Yo Jong back. But it has more to do with her status than changing gender dynamics in North Korea.

"Gender, I think, is not prohibitive," said Liberty Park, North Korea. "Obviously it would be a first, and it's a patriarchal system and so on, but I think the Paektu bloodline, the Kim bloodline, overrides that."

Lee, the former AP bureau chief in Pyongayng, said she also believes her legacy "is more important to Kim's than gender."

"For many years, Korea watchers have said that North Korea would not accept a woman," she said.

"I have said for many years that it is quite possible that the next leader in North Korea will become a woman – as long as she is the best Kim for the role."

CNN's Nathan Hodge, Sophie Jeong, Yoko Wakatsuki and Paula Hancocks contributed to the reporting

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