Kim Jong Un‘s sister has returned to public life after two months in the shadows which prompted speculation the dictator was irritated by her rising stardom.
Kim and his younger sibling Kim Yo-jong inspected recovery efforts at a flooded village in Kimhwa County in North Korea‘s southeast on Friday. He said of the storms and other natural disasters, ‘This year has been one of unprecedented hardships.’
Kim Yo – dubbed the leader’s ‘number two’ – is the only close relative playing a public role in politics and has risen to prominence for punchy statements against South Korea.
South Korean intelligence had been scrambling to track down Kim Yo after she disappeared – Kim has previously executed members of his family – but her re-emergence suggests that she still holds favour with the despot.
Kim Yo-jong stands several feet behind and to the left of Kim Jong Un as he speaks with beaming advisers at a construction site in Kimhwa County, following floods in the region
Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un, attending a wreath laying ceremony at the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum during a visit to Hanoi for Kim’s meeting with US President Donald Trump in March 2019
Kim Yo-jong, second from the back, walks in a line led by her older brother through a field in Kimwha County, southeast North Korea
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspects sites of reconstruction in Kimhwa County. Earlier, state media had called the cookie-cutter houses a model of the ‘socialist fairyland’, advertising the regime’s recovery efforts after thousands of homes were destroyed by floods.
The dictator’s sister was last seen in public on July 27 at an event to mark 67 years since the armistice that ended the Korean War – although no full peace treaty has ever been signed.
She was touted as a possible successor earlier this year when the supreme leader mysteriously vanished from public view for several weeks, sparking speculation that he was dead.
He finally resurfaced in May – but experts say there are other signs that Kim Yo-jong’s influence has been growing.
Believed to be in her 30s, she came to wider attention in the West during the flurry of international diplomacy in 2018 and 2019 by appearing at a series of international events.
These included the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea and the failed 2019 summit with Donald Trump in Vietnam.
But this year, Kim has taken on a more public policy role, cementing her status as an influential political player in her own right.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspecting the building site on Friday. He said of the storms and other natural disasters, ‘This year has been one of unprecedentedly hardships.’
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspects sites of reconstruction in Kimhwa County, in this image released by North Korea’s Central News Agency
Kim Jong Un is accompanied by close aides as he inspects the construction site in southeast North Korea
‘Prior to this, Kim Yo Jong was portrayed in state media as Kim Jong Un’s sister, his protocol officer, or one of his accompanying officials,’ said Rachel Minyoung Lee, a former North Korea analyst for the US government, earlier this year.
‘Now, North Koreans know for sure there is more to her than that.’
In March, state media carried the first ever statement by Kim, in which she criticised South Korean authorities.
There have since been several more, including a response to Trump and a warning that the North would cut communications with South Korea.
‘In addition to the harsh words and sarcasm, they can be bitingly witty in ways that the other statements are not,’ Lee said.
‘She seems to have more leeway in crafting her statements, which of course is not surprising,’ Lee said.
In a closed-door briefing to South Korean lawmakers in August, Seoul’s spy agency said Kim Jong Un had recently delegated some of his powers to a select group of senior officials including his sister.
Kim Yo-jong, pictured right with her brother Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang, has come to be seen as the dictator’s ‘number two’ and a policymaker in her own right
Kim Yo-jong has represented her brother at several international events, including a meeting with South Korea’s top national security adviser in the DMZ last year (pictured)
Officials from the National Intelligence Service said Kim’s rule was still absolute but that he was seeking to relieve the stress of managing state affairs, lawmaker Ha Tae-keung said.
Summer storms and floods have hit North Korea hard, destroying thousands of homes and raising concerns of a worsening of the country’s chronic food shortages.
While praising the recovery, Kim said he ‘felt regretful’ that new houses in the area were of a ‘monotonous’ design.
Earlier, state media had called the cookie-cutter houses a model of the ‘socialist fairyland’, advertising the regime’s recovery efforts after thousands of homes were destroyed by floods.
Kim’s comments were the latest official criticism in the tightly controlled country, where socialist glorification in the norm.
In recent weeks state media said Pyongyang had discovered ‘faults’ in its efforts to battle COVID-19, and Kim offered a rare apology for North Korea’s killing a South Korean official in waters off the west coast of the peninsula.
On Friday, the ruling party newspaper Rodong Sinmun featured Kim’s tour, showing lines of houses with red roofs and beige and white walls.
Kim said that although speed was important, he wished ‘artistic harmony with the surrounding environment and diversity had been appropriately combined’, KCNA said.