Meet North Korea’s most powerful woman, Kim Yo Jong: Kim Jong Un’s 30-something sister who could lead the country if something happens to him since his heirs are too young

Kim Yo Jong at the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics.

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Kim Yo Jong at the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics.
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REUTERS/Grigory Dukor
  • Kim Jong Un’s younger sister and right-hand woman, Kim Yo Jong, is a mysterious figure whose life has piqued international curiosity.
  • The 30-something woman has rapidly become North Korea’s most powerful woman, frequently seen side by side with her brother, and plays a key role in his administration.
  • Some had speculated last spring that she fell out of her brother’s favor, but she has since been reinstated in a top political role, indicating that she remains an essential figure in the North Korean government.
  • Visit BusinessInsider.com for more stories.

As North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has sought to raise his international standing, a figure seen by his side almost constantly during his meetings with world leaders is none other than his younger sister Kim Yo Jong.

Those frequent appearances have taken on a new significance in recent days, as rumors swirl that the dictator is gravely ill after a surgery. Kim Jong Un’s line of succession is hazy – he is believed to have three children, but they are too young to take control over the country, and his brother has reportedly been deemed unfit to lead.

That has prompted speculation that Kim Yo Jong is next in line, though the country has never had a female leader.

During the two summits between the US and North Korea, Kim Yo Jong was front and center during the historic show of diplomacy between Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump.

She also traveled to South Korea during the 2018 Winter Olympics, becoming the first member of North Korea’s ruling family to visit the south since the Korean War in the 1950s.

Like her brother, and much of the rest of their family, few details are known about Kim Yo Jong and the life she lived before reaching a prime leadership role in the North Korean government.

Here’s what we know about her so far.


Like many of Kim’s family members, Kim Yo Jong’s exact age is difficult to pin down. But she’s believed to be in her early 30s, likely born in 1989.


She’s the youngest child of former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and his consort, Ko Yong Hui, a former dancer.

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The Kim family tree.
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Business Insider/Samantha Lee

Source: Business Insider


She was partly educated in Switzerland at the same school Kim Jong Un attended. But she returned to North Korea in 2000 after completing the US equivalent of the sixth grade.

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The Liebefeld-Steinhölzli public school in Köniz, Switzerland.
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Sandstein/Wikimedia Commons

Source: North Korea Leadership Watch


Kim Yo Jong appeared destined for a powerful career from a young age. Kim Jong Il once bragged to foreign interlocutors in 2002 that his youngest daughter was interested in politics and eager to work in North Korea’s government.

Source: North Korea Leadership Watch


It’s completely unclear where she was or what she was up to between 2000 and 2007.

Source: North Korea Leadership Watch


In the following years, she conducted a lot of behind-the-scenes work for her father, Kim Jong Il, and brother Kim Jong Un. She played a particularly significant role in helping Kim Jong Un take over instead of his older brothers.

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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on September 16, 2017.
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KCNA via REUTERS

Source: North Korea Leadership Watch


Her first public appearance was in 2011 at Kim Jong Il’s funeral.

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The funeral procession for Kim Jong Il, which took place on December 28, 2011.
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Reuters

Source: Washington Post


Kim Yo Jong made headlines in 2017 after she was promoted to a top position in her brother’s government: the head of the propaganda department of the Workers’ Party of Korea.

Source: The New York Times


That’s not just a fancy title — Kim Yo Jong plays a crucial role in controlling her brother’s public image.

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People in Pyongyang read a report of the official newspaper of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party on February 27, 2019, about Kim Jong Un’s second summit with Trump.
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Kyodo News via Getty Images

Source: The Washington Post


In public, Kim Yo Jong appears to have greater freedom than other top government officials in North Korea, occasionally appearing in photographs unaccompanied, rather than constantly being in the presence of Kim Jong Un.

Source: The New York Times


Some have speculated that she was promoted partly in an effort to continue Kim Jong Un’s dynasty. While she’s out of the line of succession, some believe she could take over the country’s leadership if something happens to Kim Jong Un before his kids are old enough to rule.

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Kim Jong Un on October 8, 2017.
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KCNA/via REUTERS

Sources: The New York Times, The Washington Post


It wouldn’t be an unprecedented role for her, either. Kim Yo Jong once briefly took control of the country’s affairs while her brother was ill in 2014, according to a South Korean think tank run by North Korean defectors.

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Kim Yo Jong in 2017.
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REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

Source: CNN


She stepped onto the world stage in February 2018. In a rare show of diplomacy between the two Koreas, Kim Yo Jong traveled to South Korea for the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.

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Kim Yo Jong on February 9, 2018.
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Kyodo via Reuters

Everyone’s eyes were on Kim Yo Jong at the start of the games. She shared a historic handshake with South Korean President Moon Jae In, and both broke out in smiles.

Source: Business Insider


During the opening ceremony, she sat right behind US Vice President Mike Pence, second lady Karen Pence, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.


Kim Yo Jong and Pence did not speak with each other.

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Pence near Kim Yo Jong.
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Getty

Source: Business Insider


Her interaction with South Korean leaders was a rare show of diplomacy and warmth. Given her experience in propaganda, she likely knew exactly what she was doing to try and curry favorable attention.

Source: Business Insider


In April 2018, she played a crucial role in the peace talks between the two Koreas. Leaders from the two nations met at the Demilitarized Zone, and Kim Yo Jong was notably the only woman at the table.

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Moon talks with Kim Jong Un and Kim Yo Jong.
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Korea Summit Press Pool via Reuters

Though she stayed well away from the spotlight, leaving that to her brother, it was clear Kim Yo Jong played a significant role in orchestrating the talks and ensuring the day ran smoothly.

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Kim Jong Un with Kim Yo Jong during their meeting at the Peace House in the Demilitarized Zone on April 27, 2018.
source
Korea Summit Press Pool via Reuters

She was her brother’s right-hand woman when he and Trump signed the agreement acknowledging North Korea’s intentions to denuclearize.

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Kim Jong Un and Trump as Kim Yo Jong exchanges documents with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
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REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Source: Business Insider, The Washington Post, White House


Kim Yo Jong sparked curiosity at one point, when she switched out the pen that was provided for the summit with her own ballpoint pen. It’s unclear why she swapped the pens, but some have speculated that it was for security reasons.

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Kim Yo Jong shows a document to Kim Jong Un as Pompeo shows a copy of it to Trump.
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Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Sources: Twitter/@martyn_williams, BBC


She made headlines in February 2019 when she was seen holding her brother’s ashtray while he smoked during their train journey to Hanoi, Vietnam.

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Kim Yo Jong holding a crystal ashtray out for Kim Jong Un.
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TBS-JNN

Kim Yo Jong was featured prominently in the preparations for her brother’s talks with Trump, often rushing ahead to make sure everything was ready.

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Kim Yo Jong at the Dong Dang railway station in Vietnam.
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Reuters/Athit Perawongmetha

She even went viral at one point when she seemed to be hiding in the plants as Kim Jong Un met with the US president at the Metropole Hotel.

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Kim Yo Jong during a welcoming ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi on March 1, 2019.
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Luong Thai Linh/Pool via REUTERS

Source: Twitter


It has become increasingly clear over the past several years that Kim Yo Jong was one of her brother’s most trusted officials, and her power in the regime was only growing.

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Kim Yo Jong in the Demilitarized Zone.
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Korea Summit Press Pool via Reuters

But in the Hermit Kingdom, no one’s position is ever truly secure under the mercurial leadership of Kim Jong Un. He’s known for turning on family members quickly when they fall out of favor — and it remains to be seen whether Kim Yo Jong is an exception.


Kim Yo Jong was not listed as an alternate member of North Korea’s ruling Workers’ Party of Korea politburo — the party’s top decision-making body — and did not appear at any high-profile events during an important party gathering in April 2019.

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Kim Yo Jong on March 2, 2019.
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REUTERS/Jorge Silva/Pool

Sources: Business Insider, NK News


She also missed a meeting between Kim and Russian President Vladimir Putin later that month, fueling speculation that she had been demoted.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin welcomes Kim Jong Un at their meeting near Vladivostok, Russia, on April 25, 2019.
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Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool via Reuters

Source: Business Insider


One theory is that Kim Jong Un ordered her to lie low after his failed summit with Trump in February 2019.

Sources: Business Insider, The Guardian


But in early June 2019, Kim Yo Jong was spotted for the first time in 52 days, suggesting she was back in her brother’s good graces.

Source: Business Insider


In October 2019, North Korean media released strange photos of Kim Jong Un riding a white horse atop a mountain with historic and symbolic significance.

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Kim Yo Jong riding a horse alongside her brother during a strange, but likely symbolic, photoshoot.
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KCNA via Reuters

Source: Business Insider


Experts told Business Insider that the photos are packed with political meaning — and could foreshadow a frightening military advancement.

Source: Business Insider


Since then, her profile has only grown. In March 2020, Kim Yo Jong made her first-ever public statement, insulting South Korea as a “frightened dog barking” after the country condemned one of North Korea’s live-fire military drills.

“Such incoherent assertion and actions… only magnify our distrust, hatred and scorn for the South side as a whole,” Kim Yo Jong said in the statement.

Source: The Guardian


The following month, Kim Yo Jong was reinstated as an alternate member of the Workers’ Party of Korea politburo, suggesting that all has been forgiven since the collapse of last year’s summit.

Source: KCNA, AFP


Given these recent developments, it’s clear that Kim Yo Jong’s power has grown tremendously in recent years, fueling speculation that no other family members besides her could take over.

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Kim Yo Jong.
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Kyodo News Stills via Getty Images