Meet North Korea’s most powerful woman, Kim Yo Jong: Kim Jong Un’s 30-ish sister who was just spotted for the first time in 52 days

Kim Yo Jong (center) claps at the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics – Women Preliminary Round Match - Switzerland v Korea on February 10, 2018.

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Kim Yo Jong (center) claps at the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics – Women Preliminary Round Match – Switzerland v Korea on February 10, 2018.
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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 believed-to-be 30-year-old was last seen accompanying her brother to Hanoi, Vietnam, for a second summit with President Donald Trump in February.
  • She has rapidly become North Korea’s most powerful woman, who is frequently seen side-by-side with her brother and plays a key role in his administration.
  • Some had speculated in April that she fell out of her brother’s favor, but she was seen Monday at a propaganda event beside Kim Jong Un and his wife.
  • 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.

During last year’s summit between the United States and North Korea, Kim Yo Jong was front and center during the historic show of diplomacy with President Donald Trump.

She played a similar role in February for a second summit between Kim Jong Un and Trump in Hanoi, Vietnam. She was even spotted holding a crystal ashtray as her brother took an early morning smoke break.

It’s not the first time Kim Yo Jong has made headlines – she 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.

Some speculated that Kim Yo Jong was kicked out of North Korea’s high-profile ruling politburo, NK News reported in April, suggesting a fall from favor. But she was spotted for the first time in 52 days on Monday, standing alongside her brother and his wife at a propaganda event.

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 between 29 and 31.


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 guides the launch of a Hwasong-12 missile in this undated photo released by North Korea’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) 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. Kang said: “The Kim family are their God.”
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Reuters

Source: The 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 Worker’s 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 Feb. 27, 2019, about the country’s leader Kim Jong Un’s arrival in Vietnam for his second summit with US President Donald 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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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Pyongyang on October 8, 2017.
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KCNA/via REUTERS

Sources: The New York Times, 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, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, attends an opening ceremony of a newly constructed residential complex in Ryomyong street in Pyongyang, North Korea April 13, 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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North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un’s younger sister Kim Yo Jong arrives at Incheon International Airport, South Korea, in this photo taken by Kyodo 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 to each other.

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Mike Pence (bottom right) at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics near Kim Jong Un’s sister, 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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South Korean President Moon Jae-in talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un during their meeting at the Peace House at the truce village of Panmunjom inside the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas on April 27, 2018.
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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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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un prepares to write in a guest book with his sister Kim Yo Jong during their meeting at the Peace House at the truce village of Panmunjom inside the DMZ on April 27, 2018.
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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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North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un looks at US President Donald Trump as Kim’s sister Kim Yo Jong exchanges documents with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at their summit at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa island in Singapore on June 12, 2018.
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REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Source: Business Insider, 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 her brother, North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo shows a copy of it to President Donald Trump before they sign them at their summit at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa island in Singapore on June 12, 2018.
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Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Sources: Twitter/@martyn_williams, BBC


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

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Kim Yo Jong, the North Korean leader’s sister, holding a crystal ashtray out for him.
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TBS-JNN


Kim Yo Jong 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, sister of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un and first vice department director of the ruling Workers’ Party’s Central Committee, arrives at the Dong Dang railway station, Vietnam, at the border with China, February 26, 2019.
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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, sister of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un, holds a bouquet during a welcoming ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi, Vietnam on March 1, 2019.
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Luong Thai Linh/Pool via REUTERS

Source: Twitter


It has become increasingly clear over the last year 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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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong walks at the truce village of Panmunjom inside the demilitarized zone separating the two Koreas, South Korea, April 27, 2018.
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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.

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Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un attends wreath laying ceremony at Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi, Vietnam 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 North Korea’s leader 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.

Sources: Business Insider, The Guardian


But on Monday, Kim Yo Jong was spotted for the first time in 52 days, clapping beside her brother at an annual propaganda event called the Mass Games.

Source: Business Insider


Though Kim Yo Jong appears to be back in her brother’s good graces, the same cannot be said of the thousands of athletes who danced and performed gymnastics at the games. He reportedly criticized the organizers for their “wrong spirit of creation and irresponsible work attitude.”

Source: BBC