Under a foggy February sky, a plane made its descent towards Incheon International Airport in South Korea. Inside sat 23 passengers – five officials, three reporters and the rest bodyguards. But one mattered above all.
At 1.46pm, Korea Standard Time, on 9 February 2018, the Soviet-era Ilyushin-62 touched down. It was the first time a direct descendant of North Korea’s dynastic founder Kim Il-sung had set foot on South Korean soil since Kim Il-sung himself in July 1950, one month after invading the South.
Cameras clamoured to catch a glimpse of the guests. First to emerge from the airport was Kim Yong-nam, the then-90-year-old nominal head of the North Korean mission, who got into the first of two black sedans. Then, shadowed by a tall, male North Korean bodyguard and a female South Korean bodyguard, came a slightly built woman, around 30 years old. As she made her way to the second car, her gaze was still and her posture erect, as though she was entirely at ease with being at the centre of such a historic moment.
This was Kim Yo-jong, the sister of leader Kim Jong-un. As the youngest of the late leader Kim Jong-il’s seven children, she was doted on from childhood, known as ‘sweet princess Yo-jong’ to her parents. But unlike her other brother Kim Jong-chol, a royal sibling without real power, Kim Yo-jong was also ambitious.
From at least 2014 she had been ‘censor in chief’, running the nation’s Propaganda and Agitation Department (PAD), whose mission is to indoctrinate North Koreans with state ideology. Her role in government has dramatically increased since 2018, and she has played an integral part in statecraft, expanding her dynasty’s power by drawing on lessons learned from her father – along the way earning the nicknames of ‘bloodthirsty demon’ and ‘devil woman’ from certain North Korean officials.
And yet until that South Korea trip, few outside her country had even heard of her.
For two days, as the mysterious princess from Pyongyang attended lunches, receptions and the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, she had South Koreans enthralled, despite doing very little besides walking, sitting, shaking hands, ignoring US vice president Mike Pence in the Olympic stands, infrequently smiling and frequently looking down her nose at South Koreans – including President Moon Jae-in.
She didn’t give a single public statement or interview. The only moment that betrayed what she really thought of anything came during the opening ceremony. When the US athletes made their entrance, she stayed in her seat while others applauded, her nose in the air, scowling slightly. (By then US-North Korea relations were at a particularly low ebb, with much name-calling between Kim Jong-un and then-President Trump, that ‘mentally deranged US dotard’.)
Kim Yo-jong eschewed small talk at photo ops too, and sat silently, her face expressionless, while others made polite chit-chat about the weather. Yet throughout that 56-hour trip, she was the talk of the nation and beyond.
Press commentary was over the top, unpicking every detail from her plain black outfits and the flower-shaped clip that kept her hair back in a ‘no-nonsense style’, through to the fact that she was seen wearing thick make-up, even though she usually wore little of it at all. What could this mean? One expert concluded that her eyeshadow must be positive news – a sign that she took her mission seriously.
‘She is not only pretty but also polite!’ gushed another commentator after a wrangle over seating in the airport VIP room. In their excitement, they failed to see what was really at play: the South Korean hosts had indicated to Kim Yong-nam to take the centre seat but he motioned to the princess to take it instead. With a smile, she pointed for him to sit. ‘How gracious she is!’ remarked South Korean pundits, not noticing that Kim Yo-jong’s outstretched fingers were less a gesture of respect than the boss telling her underling to sit down.
Had she wanted to show true deference, Kim Yo-jong would have motioned with both hands cupped. But imperviousness and self-confidence bred from an early age do not lend themselves to modesty; and here she was calmly exuding arrogance.
The most important event of her trip was a visit with President Moon at the Blue House, then the presidential office and mansion, followed by a luncheon. It would be here that she delivered a personal letter from her brother, paving the way for a series of historic meetings between the North and South Korean leaders.
That this letter was delivered by Kim Yo-jong, not Kim Yong-nam – a government veteran of six decades, who had for the past 20 years been President of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, the rubber-stamp parliament – spoke volumes. It was a snapshot of a peculiarity in North Korean political culture, in which official ranks often belie the true hierarchy, and the lives of cabinet members and four-star generals can hang on the whims of a real power-holder of a much lower rank. Indeed Kim Yo-jong could, if she wished, order the execution of any one of the 250-strong Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea, except Kim Jong-un.
It is the First Sister of North Korea who wields real power.
When Kim Il-sung died in 1994 and Kim Jong-il became the Supreme Leader, the outside world – even foreign intelligence agencies – knew little about the new man, nor his seven children, born to four different women. Of his three youngest children – Jong-chol, Jong-un and Yo-jong, all born to his most favoured consort, dancer Ko Yong-hui – they knew nothing at all.
Kim Jong-il had his children home-schooled initially, then sent them to study abroad in Geneva, Bern and Moscow. This was also to protect his own interests: to minimise the spread of rumours among potential schoolmates about his lavish lifestyle and excesses, like his penchant for the best food and wine money can buy, or falling prey to ‘reactionary thought’ by watching James Bond films and South Korean soap operas, even as he punished others caught engaging in such criminal acts.
Some of the most illuminating details about family life behind closed doors come from Kim Jong-il’s Japanese sushi chef of 13 years. Kenji Fujimoto (a pseudonym) worked for him from 1988 to 2001 and enjoyed direct personal access to the leader and his three youngest children. He never saw any of Kim Jong-il’s other four children, though – back then the leader forbade his children from different mothers from meeting each other.
Fujimoto was invited to banquets and late-night drinking parties by Kim Jong-il. He played games with the royal family, taught the boys how to fly kites, and when Kim Jong-un was in his mid-teens, was his secret smoking buddy.
According to Fujimoto, Yo-jong’s parents addressed their daughter as ‘Princess’ – and from childhood she was the axis of the royal family. At mealtimes, she sat to her father’s left, while her mother sat to his right.
Fujimoto paints her as a strong-willed girl. Not quite yet ‘iron-willed’, but determined and stubborn. Her father stationed Kim Jong-nyo, a singer in his favourite band, at his estate to serve as the little princess’s playmate – she even accompanied the family on trips overseas – but one day Fujimoto found she had gone. Princess Yo-jong, then around eight or nine, had fired her.
The princess was seen scolding Jong-chol, too, after he developed a crush on one of her female aides. One day, when he was about 16, he snuck into a women-only theatre on one of his father’s estates, where Yo-jong was watching a film, to steal a glance at the aide, but Yo-jong physically dragged him out even though he was seven years older and presumably far bigger. (She never had to repeat the same for her middle brother – Kim Jong-un was more engrossed in sports and video games than girls.)
When Ko Yong-hui died in 2004, likely from breast cancer, her daughter was just 16. But already she was being prepared for her future.
Along with her two brothers, she had received special training on how to act like royalty. A photograph taken in 2009 shows the three siblings accompanying their father at Wonsan Agricultural University, a glimpse of their apprenticeship.
Soon she was supporting her father in important meetings, and when former US president Bill Clinton made a short trip to Pyongyang that August, Kim Yo-jong, not yet 22, was waiting on the tarmac.
That encounter would give a telling view into her leadership style: ignoring the former president and neglecting to introduce herself, she went straight to Clinton’s aide Doug Band and – in English – asked if he had a document she was expecting (a letter of thanks from President Obama that had been promised to her father in return for releasing two American hostages). There was no cordiality; she was all business.
Kim Jong-il’s death from a heart attack in December 2011 thrust his youngest son, still in his 20s, into the spotlight as the new Supreme Leader – but from the start his sister was at his side, frequently accompanying him on official visits to military bases, factories, museums, farms, orphanages and a nuclear-missile assembly facility.
To Kim Jong-un, only he, his sister and his brother belonged to the core trunk of the ‘Mount Paektu’ family tree. Their older half-siblings inhabited, in his view, a space outside the direct line of descendants. And of the three core siblings, Kim Jong-chol appears content to live out of the spotlight, while Yo-jong, capable and trusted, is of an entirely different mould.
The closest thing to a public launch for her came in November 2012 when, not quite a year into Kim Jong-un’s reign, Kim Yo-jong, then 25, was shown riding a white horse with her paternal aunt Kim Kyong-hui, who had run the party’s Light Industry Department for more than two decades. Each of their horses featured a five-pointed silver star on its headstall, an emblem of the Kim dynasty and the nation it rules. The suggestion was clear: Kim Yo-jong’s official role was set to expand.
A further indication of her importance came in October 2019, when she and Kim Jong-un were photographed, again on horseback, riding up Mount Paektu together. Plans to vastly strengthen Kim Yo-jong’s official role in government were already in place.
At her uncle’s suggestion, Kim Yo-jong had also joined a 50-person class that had been specially created for her at Kim Il-sung University’s politics and economics department, where her fellow classmates were masters and doctoral students. The crash course lasted six months. It was intended for her to brush up her knowledge but it was also a way for her to meet a future husband. She was, the other students observed, very good with computers. She used two monitors simultaneously with ease, while typing away deftly. Whether the matchmaking worked or not is a state secret, but there is speculation that she went on to marry and have two children.
By at least late 2014, Kim Yo-jong was in charge of the PAD, working under the alias ‘Kim Ye-jong’; her father had also led the department when he was being prepared for power. To many, she was still Kim Jong-un’s ordinary, happy-go-lucky sister – spotted joking around at an amusement park opening, and attending music concerts with her brother and sister-in-law – but behind the scenes she seems to have gotten down to work.
In 2014, a sudden and unusual surge of foul language poured from propaganda outlets around North Korea, and articles in the state media brimmed with profanity, aggressive racism, sexism and homophobia.
The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) called Michael Kirby, a retired high court justice in Australia, who is gay, ‘a disgusting old lecher with a 40-odd-year-long career of homosexuality’. His ‘offence’ was to have chaired the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on human rights in North Korea, whose monumental 372-page report, released in February 2014, had found extreme human rights abuses to be the work of the state.
Concurrently, the KCNA targeted South Korea’s first female elected leader, President Park Geun-hye, carrying quotes that called her a ‘wicked sycophant’ and ‘dirty old prostitute’. Referring to President Park’s warm welcome of President Obama to South Korea, propagandists stated that Park reminded them of a ‘capricious whore who asks her fancy man to do harm to another person while providing sex to him’.
Soon after, state media called President Obama himself a ‘wicked black monkey’ who should ‘live with a group of monkeys in the world’s largest African natural zoo and lick the breadcrumbs thrown by spectators’.
Such invective could never be published without the approval of the Supreme Leader and his chief propagandist, Kim Yo-jong, who might have come up with some of these words, or at the very least signed them off.
She steamed through the ranks, assuming ever more powerful roles including de facto head of the Organisation and Guidance Department, the nation’s central locus of political power, overseeing daily decisions on key personnel matters, including in the military. Political surveillance, punishment and commendation were suddenly her prerogatives. In theory she could decide who was monitored, demoted, promoted, punished, banished or even tied up to be executed in the town square or in a sports stadium behind closed doors.
Effectively she was becoming ‘Deputy Dear Leader’.
Later, Kim Jong-un pushed her higher still. In 2021, he appointed his sister to the State Affairs Commission, the top governing body. And in January 2023, aged 35, she assumed the pivotal role of chief spokesperson on Russia’s war on Ukraine and the renewed Cold War dynamics. Warning the US that any tanks supplied to Ukraine for defence against Russia will be ‘burnt into pieces in the face of the indomitable fighting spirit and might of the heroic Russian army and people’, she added that her nation will always ‘stand in the same trench’ with Russia.
Like her brother, Kim Yo-jong has been underestimated in the past. Solely by virtue of having attended school in Switzerland, Kim Jong-un was initially viewed by many as a potential reformer. Similar fancies swirled around the sister, with 2018 a banner year after the glamour and gossip she brought to South Korea.
But that view has since shifted in some quarters. At home, it is rumoured that she has gone beyond merely issuing threats to life. She reportedly ordered several executions of high-ranking government officials for merely ‘getting on her nerves’. She is said to have banished those less disagreeable and their families to detention camps and gulags, to a life of forced labour, beatings, torture and starvation rations.
Ordinary North Koreans are said to refer to her as ‘Empress Dowager Cixi’, after the ruthless de facto ruler of China’s last imperial dynasty, in power for nearly 50 years.
The office Kim Yo-jong holds is not that of the head of state – but she is the only person in Kim Jong-un’s entourage who has his complete trust, able to approach him at any time without being summoned. On matters of statecraft, no other person has such ease of access to the Supreme Leader. And under him, her power has only grown.
The pandemic accelerated it, no doubt adding the pressure to build a succession plan should he become incapacitated. He is, after all, not in optimal health, and suffers from heart disease, diabetes and obesity like his father and grandfather.
Kim Yo-jong seems the natural choice, even in the rigidly male-dominated society: her elder brother Jong-chol has long been passed over as heir; her half-brother, Jong-nam, the eldest son, died in February 2017, aged 45, following a nerve agent attack in Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Though once tipped to be leader, by then he was an outspoken critic, living in exile. As for the three older half-sisters, none have held any significant government roles, or been given public acknowledgement.
Kim Jong-un himself is reported to have three young children. In November 2022, he publicly revealed one of them for the first time – a daughter, Ju-ae, aged about 10 – during the launch of a powerful intercontinental ballistic missile. Some North Korea watchers predicted that she had been chosen as his successor. But even if true, it will be some time before she is old enough, like Aunt Yo-jong, to issue formal statements in her own name or lead a delegation.
Kim Yo-jong is certainly best prepared to be the torchbearer. Over the past three years, she has remained her nation’s chief censor, spokeswoman, mocker, and threat-and-malice dispenser, with the country’s foreign policy at her fingertips and unfettered access to her nuclear-button-controlling brother.
As her power grows and tales of her ruthlessness spread, it would be dangerous to overestimate the goodwill of the Mount Paektu princess. Her brother willing, she will wield this unique power for decades to come, as his deputy or, perhaps one day, as the first female Supreme Leader in her nation’s history.
Abridged extract from The Sister: The Extraordinary Story of Kim Yo Jong, the Most Powerful Woman in North Korea, by Sung-Yoon Lee, which is out on 15 June (Pan Macmillan, £20). To order from Telegraph Books for £20, call 0844 871 1515 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk
Sung-Yoon Lee is the Kim Koo-Korea Foundation Professor in Korean Studies at Tufts University. He was previously an associate in research at the Korea Institute, Harvard University