SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - As North Korea ramps up military pressure on South Korea, the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, has been conspicuously absent from public view.
Kim, who has made very few public appearances this year, instead seems to have delegated his increasingly powerful sister to oversee Pyongyang’s cycle of provocations against Seoul.
Once seen mainly as an aide to her brother, Kim Yo Jong began issuing her own public statements in March. She has since become the public face of North Korea’s more aggressive stance toward the South.
Last week, North Korea announced it would cut all official channels of communication with the South. On Tuesday, North Korea used controlled explosives to blow up the de facto inter-Korean embassy just north of the border. A day later, the North announced it would redeploy troops and resume military exercises near the border.
North Korea has a long history of periodically ramping up tensions in order to extract economic and other concessions from the South. Currently, Pyongyang is frustrated that Seoul has been unwilling to push ahead with improving inter-Korean ties.
Kim Yo Jong’s role in overseeing the provocations underscores a possible new power dynamic in North Korea’s leadership hierarchy, with her seemingly now occupying the No. 2 position.
“Until now there had been no third person between the military and Kim Jong Un, but now there is Kim Yo Jong,” said former senior North Korean diplomat Thae Yong-ho.
The provocations also highlight a "new command structure in which the whole of North Korea rapidly responds as soon as Kim Yo Jong utters a single word,” said Thae, now a South Korean lawmaker, in a Facebook post.
It’s unclear why North Korea decided now is the moment to boost Kim Yo Jong’s public profile. Her ascendancy, though, coincides with unconfirmed rumors about Kim Jong Un’s health that emerged during a three-week absence in late April and early May.
The 36-year-old North Korean leader, who has gained much weight in recent years, skipped a significant public ceremony in April honoring his late grandfather, the country's founding leader. A wave of media speculation followed, including unconfirmed reports he had undergone a heart procedure.
The rumors led to worries about the stability of the Kim dynasty, which has ruled the country since its founding in 1948. Kim Jong Un, the third member of his family to rule the country, does not appear to have appointed a successor.
Health concerns and succession issues are one of many possible explanations for Kim Yo Jung’s expanded leadership role, said Chad O’Carroll, CEO of Korea Risk Group, which produces the influential NK News website.
“I think it makes a lot of sense,” O’Carroll said. “Otherwise, why not have someone else put forward these messages?”
However, as O’Carroll and others point out, there are many explanations not related to Kim’s health or the stability of the regime.
One possibility is that by allowing his sister to be the public face of aggression toward South Korea, Kim may be preserving his future flexibility.
"He wouldn't be tainted by the escalation directly, so to speak,” Ramon Pacheco Pardo, a Korea specialist at King’s College London, said.
In 2018, Kim held three summits with his South Korean counterpart, President Moon Jae-in.
“If there is to be another summit, it makes sense for Kim Jong Un not to be the one leading escalation," Pacheco Pardo said.
Tasked with inter-Korean ties
Another reason Kim Yo Jong currently has the megaphone is that inter-Korean relations seems to be her main job.
During the 2018 period of improved relations, she served as a special envoy, becoming the first member of the Kim dynasty to head south of the border since the 1950s Korean War.
Now, she seems to be serving as a wrecking ball, overseeing the destruction of many of the inter-Korean achievements reached during that period.
This month, she has repeatedly slammed the South Korean government for allowing activists to float anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the border. She has called the defectors who send such materials “riffraff,” “hooligans,” and “human scum.”
When South Korea this week offered to send envoys to defuse tensions, Kim Yo Jong rejected the proposal as "unrealistic," “disrespectful,” "tactless," “reckless,” "sinister," and "a petty farce.”
Meanwhile, Kim Jong Un hasn’t made any appearances in state media since June 8, when he oversaw a Politburo meeting that discussed “urgent problems” in developing North Korea’s chemical industry.
“Kim Jong Un doesn't need to have the microphone during these times,” Duyeon Kim, a senior adviser for Northeast Asia and nuclear policy at the International Crisis Group, said, “His closest confidante is speaking on his behalf and upon his orders.”
Gaining military achievements?
The 32-year-old Kim Yo Jong is currently the vice director of the North Korean ruling Korean Worker’s Party’s United Front Department, which handles relations with the South, including propaganda operations and espionage.
Some analysts believe Ms. Kim’s new hardline stance may be designed to further bolster her military credentials and expand her authority, not easy tasks in a male-dominated, hierarchical system like North Korea’s.
“With the growing health concerns over her brother, she is flexing her muscles to gain support from the regime’s hardliners and the military,” said Jay Song, a lecturer in Korean studies at the University of Melbourne's Asia Institute.
There is a possible precedent. In 2010, North Korea engaged in a similar, though more intense, cycle of provocations against the South.
In March of that year, a North Korean torpedo sank a South Korean warship in disputed waters off the Korean peninsula, killing 46 sailors. A few months later, the North shelled the border island of Yeonpyeong, killing several more people.
Kim Jong Un is widely believed to have been involved in the provocations, which came after he was named successor to his father, Kim Jong Il.
Similarly, some analysts suspect Kim Yo Jong may now be raising tensions with South Korea in order to burnish her military credentials and alleviate concerns within North Korean leadership following her own apparent elevation in the hierarchy.
“I think that is very plausible,” Christopher Green, who lectures in Korean studies at Leiden University in the Netherlands, said.
Green said, though that it would be a mistake to assume that means Kim Jong Un is sick.
“Kim Jong Un may be in decline, but this doesn’t prove it,” he said, “It is faulty logic to assume so.”