North Korea: next woman leader?

(To Antonio Vecchio)
26/04/20

Kim Jong-un, the "Respected leader" of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, would still be in a vegetative state with no prospect of recovery.

The news had spread on April 21, published by the South Korean online magazine NK, and immediately bounced around the world by CNN1.

Two days ago, the death had been confirmed by the deputy director of the Hong Kong satellite channel "HKSTV", Qing Feng, with a service whose singular credibility derived from the fact that it was signed by the granddaughter of a former Beijing Foreign Minister , Li Zhaoxing.

In a post on Weibo, the main Chinese social network, the reporter claimed "to have sources very solid that the Pyongyang authorities are taking time before making the official announcement of Kim's death".

Something is certainly in the air, few but significant indicators that lead to infer a crucial phase of the North Korean regime. Like the arrival last week2, in the Wonsan "presidential complex" of Kim Jong Un's personal train. Or that of a Chinese medical team that in these hours would be supporting North Korean colleagues in the difficult phases following cardiac surgery.

A delicate moment now opens, which will last until the succession process is completed.

The first discriminator will be to understand if this time in the bloodline it will not be gender considerations, in which case the most credited to happen would seem to be Sister Kim Yo Jong. It would represent a Copernican revolution for a patriarchal and gerontocratic society like that of Pyongyang, built around the (male) cult of the personalities of the founder, Kim Il-sung, of his son, Kim Jong-il, Kim's grandfather and father, and of the leader in charge.

The (female) succession is currently an open and complex issue, in which several factors come into play, not least that of the acceptance of a woman and moreover young, by a backward people and rigidly anchored to Confucian principles and the division of roles within society and the family.

It is true that Kim Jong-un has a 10-year-old son who has never appeared in public, too young to be considered, and a younger brother, Kim Jong Chul, who is more interested in playing the guitar and making good music.

The traces of his nephew, Kim Han Sol, were lost after he denounced the regime, and it is not even known if he is still alive or if the Supreme leader he has reserved the same fate for his half-brother and uncle, both killed.

A potential successor, according to ex n. 2 of the North Korean embassy in London, Thae Yong Ho, now transfused in Seoul, could be the still living uncle Kim Pyong Il, the only son of the founder, Kim Il Sung, who recently returned to country after four decades of diplomatic service.

The game is therefore open, and proceeding to the exclusion of the possible contenders by means of an age criterion (the young age of the son and the too old age of the uncle) and attitudes (those of the brother who are not very inclined to government responsibilities), a possible solution could to be precisely the investiture of the sister, for whose purpose the young woman would have been prepared.

Born in 1988 (or 1989) and university education in Switzerland, Kim Yo Jong has long supported his brother in public ceremonies; as his shadow in the case of the meeting with Trump in Singapore (2018), or even in his place in the inauguration ceremony of the Seoul Winter Olympics (2018), during which he was reserved the place behind that of the US Vice President Pence.

In 2014 he was deputy director of the party's propaganda department, and since 2017 he has been an alternate member of the Politburo, the highest organ of the state: second woman, after his aunt, to fill the position.

Recently, the tone and content of some of his public statements have cut his weight and rank within the apparatus.

Like when he spoke of "Scared barking dog" referring to Seoul's reactions after launching military exercises near the border; or as when he said, about the relationship with the USA, that "We trust on the day when relations between the two countries will be as good as those between their two leaders, but it must be left to time and we must see if it can actually happen" except however to conclude that, in the meantime, it was necessary "Don't waste time, and become more and more powerful."

Alternatively, the regime could opt for its pro-tempore regency with the task of leading the country and preparing the young nephew for the role of supreme guide.

In this perspective, a possible internal resistance could come from the military (all male) nomenclature that controls the country's nuclear arsenal, on which the regime's survival depends.

But perhaps it would not be so impossible to win her devotion by confirming her status and the many privileges she enjoys.