PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Kim Jong Un’s younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, will be coming to the PyeongChang Winter Olympics on Friday, making her the first member of the ruling Kim family to ever cross into South Korea.
South Korea is viewing her visit as a positive sign of the North Korean leader’s “willingness to ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula.” She is expected to stay in South Korea for three days.
We know very little about Kim Jong Un, and we know even less about Kim Yo Jong. But here’s what we do know:
She is 29 or 30 or 31
Kim Yo Jong is the youngest child and only daughter of Kim Jong Il and his consort, the Japanese-born dancer Ko Yong Hui. Their oldest child is Kim Jong Chol, followed by Kim Jong Un, who is 34. Kim Yo Jong was born in Pyongyang on Sept. 26, 1989, according to the U.S. Treasury Department. It released this information when it blacklisted her for human rights abuses last year. But South Korea’s intelligence service has said that she was born in 1987. Either way, she’s about 30.
She went to school in Switzerland
Like her older brothers, Kim Yo Jong attended school in Bern, the Swiss capital. She attended the Liebefeld-Steinhölzli public school, the same school as Kim Jong Un, for several years and lived in a modest apartment nearby. She went by the alias Pak Mi Hyang and is thought to have enjoyed ballet lessons while in Bern. (Kim Jong Chol was “Pak Chol” and Kim Jong Un was “Pak Un.”)
Kim Jong Il doted on his youngest daughter, according to Kenji Fujimoto, a Japanese sushi chef who worked in the royal household for years. He called her “sweet, sweet Yo Jong” and “Princess Yo Jong.”
She showed political potential from an early age
Kim Yo Jong is thought to have returned to North Korea in 2000 or 2001, at the same time as Kim Jong Un. It is not known where she went to high school, but she is thought to have completed special classes at Kim Il Sung University in Pyongyang. As early as 2002, Kim Jong Il proudly told foreign interlocutors that his youngest daughter was interested in politics and wanted a career in North Korea's political system, according to the North Korea Leadership Watch blog.
Konstantin Pulikovsky, who was Russia’s envoy to the Far East and visited North Korea frequently during the Kim Jong Il era, also said that Kim Jong Il identified Kim Jong Un and Kim Yo Jong as showing an interest in and aptitude for political life. Kim Yo Jong was considered “quick-witted and showing good leadership skills,” Pulikovsky told the Japanese public broadcaster NHK in 2012.
She first appeared in public at her father’s funeral
Kim Yo Jong wasn’t seen in public for a decade after her return to Pyongyang. She made her debut in the North Korean media when she appeared among the mourners at Kim Jong Il’s funeral at the end of 2011.
In the intervening years, she is thought to have been groomed for a leadership role by her aunt, Kim Kyong Hui, who performed the same supporting role for her own brother, Kim Jong Il, as Kim Yo Jong now does for Kim Jong Un.
Kim Yo Jong carried out her behind-the-scenes work for her father and brother and is thought to be the woman pictured with them in a grainy photo taken in 2009, which briefly appeared on North Korean television.
She began helping establish Kim Jong Un’s hereditary succession campaign in 2010 and 2011, working in the National Defense Commission and Kim Jong Il’s personal secretariat, according to North Korea Leadership Watch.
She is modeling herself on her aunt
In 2012, North Korea’s state television channel broadcast footage of her riding a horse with her aunt, Kim Kyong Hui, to coincide with Kim Jong Un’s visit to the Korean People’s Army equestrian company. Kim Kyong Hui disappeared from the public eye in 2013, when her husband, Jang Song Thaek, was executed for trying to build an alternate power base to rival Kim Jong Un. She is thought to still be alive, but ill.
Kim Kyong Hui was a member of the powerful political bureau of the ruling Workers’ Party, and last year Kim Yo Jong took her aunt's place there.
Both women were promoted to help their brothers, former CIA analyst Jung H. Pak said after Kim Yo Jong’s promotion last year. “She’s supporting him. You know she’s not a leader in her own right,” Pak said.
She is in charge of protecting and promoting her brother's image
Kim Yo Jong is officially deputy director of the Propaganda and Agitation Department of the Workers’ Party of Korea, the communist organ that runs the state. In this role, she makes sure that Kim Jong Un is presented as a strong leader and that everything runs smoothly.
She was seen working during a big parade in Pyongyang in April last year, rushing out from behind pillars to bring paperwork to her brother. She also appeared on stage with him during the opening of a landmark construction project in the capital, Ryomyong Street, where she was dressed in a functional black suit and appeared to be coordinating photographers and other logistics.
Blood is thicker than water in North Korea’s bizarre personality cult, and Kim Jong Un clearly trusts his full-blooded sister most of all.
So could she one day be leader?
In a word, no. North Korea adheres to highly Confucian — hierarchical and male-dominated — rules that would make it impossible for her to govern. “She can’t be leader. She’s a female,” said Lim Jae-cheon, a Kim family expert at Korea University in Seoul.
But she has an important role to play. “Kim Yo Jong is very influential,” Lim said.
That role will only become more important as she travels to South Korea on Friday, where she is likely to meet South Korean President Moon Jae-in — and possibly even encounter the vice president of the United States, Mike Pence.
South Korea is eagerly awaiting her arrival.
She will definitely be mobbed by South Korean media when she arrives, but we can also expect South Korean intelligence to try to pick up every detail it can. After Kim Jong Nam, the older half brother of Kim Jong Un and Kim Yo Jong, was killed in Malaysia last year, details of efforts to collect intelligence on him emerged. Alex Hwang, the owner of a Korean restaurant in Kuala Lumpur that Kim Jong Nam sometimes visited, said he would send dishes and cutlery used by Kim Jong Nam to the South Korean Embassy for DNA testing.
Do we know any personal details about her?
As with many other figures in North Korea’s opaque leadership, little else is known about Kim Yo Jong. Some South Korean and Japanese newspapers have reported that she is married to a finance official, the son of senior official Choe Ryong Hae, and that they have at least one child. Another report has it that she fell in love with a bodyguard. And another says she is single and childless. She has, however, been seen with a band on her wedding ring finger. Beyond that, we can’t be sure of anything.