North Korea ‘Power Struggle’ Seen Among Kim Jong Un’s Sister, Wife, Child
In an interview with Newsweek, the first senior diplomat to defect from North Korea has revealed his views on a potential power struggle emerging at the highest levels of Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un’s dynasty, and his plan for a possible path forward to engage the ruler of the isolated, nuclear-armed nation on human rights issues.
Ko Young Hwan, 69, served on the front lines of the diplomatic war that played out for decades in Africa between Pyongyang and Seoul as they competed for recognition among nations of the continent. Amid a reported spat with his superiors over the tenets of communism, the man who had served as a French interpreter for North Korean founder Kim Il Sung escaped his posting in the Congo and ultimately claimed asylum in South Korea in 1991, where he went on to work as an expert at the National Security Strategy Institute until his retirement in 2016.
Ko told Newsweek that he remains in contact with those still living in North Korea and he presents an elusive insight into the current state of the country, from its foreign policy to the succession of its three-generation leadership.
He took particular note of the introduction to the world last November of Kim Jong Un’s daughter, believed to be named Kim Ju Ae, at a launch site of the Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile. Prior to that moment, the only evidence of her existence outside of intelligence reports was a first-person account by former U.S. basketball star Dennis Rodman following his 2013 trip to North Korea. But a decade later she has emerged as an increasingly important component of her father’s public messaging.
Ko told Newsweek that the decision to introduce her was taken “to imply the fourth-generation power transfer to senior officials and military elite as well as, externally, that Kim Jong Un wants to portray his image as ‘daddy,’ loving his own daughter and caring for the future of the nation.”
Showing Kim Ju Ae alongside Kim Jong Un at missile sites, live-fire launches and military events indicates that the ruler “thinks that the transfer of nuclear weapons to the future is a means to protect his own nation and he wants to portray that image,” according to Ko.
In her most recent appearance released Monday, she accompanied her father during what the official Korean Central News Agency reported to be a two-day “combined tactical drill to substantially bolster the country’s war deterrence and nuclear counterattack capability.”
There is precedent for official introductions of members of North Korea’s first family to be linked to the succession of its leadership. Kim Jong Un’s father, Kim Jong Il, first showed off his youngest son in 2010, only about a year before he would take power following the elder Kim’s death in late 2011.
And though secrecy continues to surround the Kim family, Kim Jong Un has a record of breaking the traditionally male-dominated mold.
Kim Ju Ae’s rise to “most beloved” daughter has come in the wake of two other North Korean women ascending to the spotlight. Kim Jong Un’s younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, has climbed the ranks to vice director of the ruling Korean Workers’ Party Propaganda and Agitation Department under his rule, and Kim Jong Un also broke precedent in formally introducing his wife, Ri Sol Ju, to the public shortly after taking power.
The prominence of Kim Jong Un’s sister at the forefront of international exchanges has garnered significant attention inside and outside of North Korea. But Ko said that, “after the introduction of Kim Ju Ae, Kim Yo Jong is sidelined,” leading to potential tensions among contenders for the future of the number one seat.
Ko highlighted evidence of insider frictions leading up to Kim Ju Ae’s public debut in an account of an alleged altercation between Kim Yo Jong and influential former Propaganda and Agitation Department Director Kim Ki Nam. Despite Kim Ki Nam’s powerful position, rumors among North Koreans are that “she shouted and threw documents” during this dispute and that “she was very angry.”
Questions also continue to surround the nearly year-long absence between June 2021 and April 2022 of Korean Workers’ Party Central Military Commission Vice Chairman Ri Pyong Chol, one of the central figures of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and believed to be either the father or grandfather of Ri Sol Ju. He attended an enlarged meeting of the commission last month but did not appear present at a subsequent gathering held Sunday.
Since Kim Ju Ae’s introduction, there have been even more potentially significant public indications that something has changed with respect to Kim Jong Un’s sister and daughter. Ko pointed out that Kim Yo Jong, who was previously seen in positions very close to her brother at major events, has since been present at the periphery from the center stage occupied by Kim Jong Un alongside Kim Ju Ae and Ri Sol Ju.
Recent examples include the absence of any clear shots of Kim Yo Jong throughout state media coverage of a February 7 military parade marking the 75th anniversary of the Korean People’s Army, possibly only appearing in a barely recognizable cameo in the far background as Kim Jong Un walked the red carpet with his wife and daughter. Then, Kim Yo Jong was also sat at the end of a back row far from her brother and niece during a soccer game held between the North Korean Cabinet and National Defense Ministry to commemorate the birthday of the two siblings’ late father on February 18.
Ko emphasized that “all Koreans” watched these scenes, and that this shift “proves that Kim Yo Jong is losing ground to Kim Ju Ae.”
But it remains unclear how exactly Kim Yo Jong may react as she remains a powerful part of her brother’s government at a time when her niece is estimated to be only about 10 years old. Unverified reports citing intelligence assessments have emerged of at least two other children between Kim Jong Un and Ri Sol Ju, one born in 2010 and the other in 2017, though they too would likely be too young to fill the footsteps of their father, who is now believed to be in his late 30s or early 40s and became the country’s youngest leader at approximately age 27.
“Kim Yo Jong is at the center of the regime and is a close aide to Kim Jong Un, handling a lot of tasks of North Korea,” Ko said, “and Ri Sol Ju is worried that, while her children are very young, Kim Yo Jong is overly active.”
“So, I think some kind of power struggle is going on between Kim Yo Jong and Ri Sol Ju,” he added.
An additional “rising star” identified by Ko is Korean Workers’ Party Organizational Affairs Secretary Jo Yong Won, also often described as one of Kim Jong Un’s closest aides. While “Kim Yo Jong is the second-in-command by bloodline,” Ko said that “Jo Yong Won is the second-in-command by power.”
In a potential further complication, Ko speculated that Kim Jong Un may be suffering from health issues, given his decision to introduce Kim Ju Ae while the ruler himself is still relatively young. Amid these uncertainties, Ko predicted that “the North Korean political landscape will be very dire in the coming months.”
But even with these variables at play, Ko sees an opportunity to engage with Kim Jong Un on an issue on which he has regularly been criticized by Western powers, especially South Korea, Japan and their mutual ally, the United States: human rights. Although North Korea consistently rejects such criticism, Kim Jong Un has admitted that his nation is facing economic woes likely exacerbated by ongoing tight border restrictions adopted during the COVID-19 pandemic and recent floods.
Ko suggested that “[South] Korea, the U.S. and Japan should put aside issues of North Korean nuclear weapons and first discuss human rights issues and think of providing rice and flour and other assistance if there is a remarkable progress on human rights issues.”
Kim Jong Un, who oversaw reforms upon coming to power aimed at allowing citizens to keep more of the food they produced, has since used the term “Arduous March” to describe the current situation. The reference appears to draw a comparison to the 1990s famine in the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse and is believed to have led to mass starvation.
Still, in the midst of current geopolitical tensions, he has pressed on with advanced military development.
So while Ko said that “Kim Jong Un will never give up nuclear weapons, even if we impose stronger sanctions or add pressures on North Korea,” he argued that government officials, including diplomats, were particularly “sensitive” to the issue of human rights and the dire economic situation they and their compatriots faced.
And though Pyongyang’s outspoken rivals including Seoul, Tokyo and Washington may find difficulty in gaining ground on this topic given underlying political disputes, Ko said there may be an opportunity for other powers viewed as less partisan to step up.
“My personal sentiments are that it would be more effective for neutral European countries like Switzerland, Sweden or Austria that harbor less hostility toward the North to come together in one voice with one consistent message,” Ko said, “not just in formal settings such as the U.N.”
With Japan, South Korea and the U.S. “on the sidelines,” Ko said that these “more neutral countries,” also potentially including France, “should propose ideas like providing food and assistance like rice and oil on the condition that they improve human rights remarkably.” That, he argued, “could be a package” that “would be effective.”
“If policymakers or foreign ministers of European countries suggest the provision of food aid on the condition of showing reeducation facilities or political camps,” he said, “North Korea is likely to accept that.”
Yet Ko emphasized that pressing North Korea on other fronts, including the nuclear file, should not be abandoned altogether, as he believed in a multifaceted strategy toward engaging with a country that has once again withdrawn from international diplomacy in the wake of the historic 2018-2019 trilateral peace process that ultimately failed to achieve lasting progress.
“What I think is that we need to put all the cards on the negotiating table—human rights, denuclearization, easing tensions on the Korean Peninsula, improvement of the relationship between the U.S. and North Korea—all the cards,” Ko said. “We need to start the dialogue between the U.S. and North Korea, and the two Koreas and the U.S. We need to take that path.”
“And the key to that solution,” he added, “is that we should normalize North Korea.”
Newsweek has reached out to the Permanent Mission of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea to the United Nations for comment.