Demoted? Pushed aside? Fate of Kim Jong Un's sister unclear

Russia's Foreign Minister Lavrov in North Korea

What has happened to Kim Yo Jong, the North Korean leader's influential sister?

That is a question many who watch the cloistered, nuclear-armed country are wondering after she failed to appear in absolute leader Kim Jong Un's newly released lineup for the country's powerful Politburo in recent days.

Some say Kim Jong Un may have demoted his sister over general policy failures. Others, however, believe he could be worried about her rapid rise and increasingly high profile as he tries to bolster his domestic authority in the face of growing economic challenges.

Rumors that Kim Yo Jong is her brother's heir apparent could be dangerous because they "raise the issue of Kim's hold on power and health inside North Korea," said Oh Gyeong-seob, an analyst at Seoul's Korea Institute for National Unification. This, he said, is why Kim Jong Un is slowing down her rise in power.

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PYONGYANG, NORTH KOREA - MAY 31, 2018: North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un's sister Kim Yo-jong seen at Kumsusan Palace of the Sun. Valery Sharifulin/TASS (Photo by Valery Sharifulin\TASS via Getty Images)
A man watches a TV screen showing a news program with a file image of Kim Yo Jong, the sister of North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un, at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, June 17, 2020. North Korea said Wednesday that it will send soldiers to now-shuttered inter-Korean cooperation sites in its territory and reinstall guard posts and resume military exercises at front-line areas, nullifying tension-reducing deals reached with South Korea just two years ago. (AP Photo/Lee Jin-man)
PANMUNJOM, SOUTH KOREA - APRIL 27: North Koraen Leader Kim Jong Un (L) and sister Kim Yo Jong attend the Inter-Korean Summit at the Peace House on April 27, 2018 in Panmunjom, South Korea. Kim and Moon meet at the border today for the third-ever inter-Korean summit talks after the 1945 division of the peninsula, and first since 2007 between then President Roh Moo-hyun of South Korea and Leader Kim Jong-il of North Korea. (Photo by Korea Summit Press Pool/Getty Images)
TOPSHOT - US President Donald Trump (2nd R) and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un (2nd L) sign documents as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (R) and the North Korean leader's sister Kim Yo Jong (L) look on at a signing ceremony during their historic US-North Korea summit, at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa island in Singapore on June 12, 2018. - Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un became on June 12 the first sitting US and North Korean leaders to meet, shake hands and negotiate to end a decades-old nuclear stand-off. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo credit should read SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)
Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un, attends wreath laying ceremony at Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi, March 2, 2019. (Photo by JORGE SILVA / POOL / AFP) (Photo credit should read JORGE SILVA/AFP via Getty Images)
Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, speaks with North Korean officials during a bilateral meeting with Nguyen Thi Kim Ngan, chairwoman of Vietnam's National Assembly, at the National Assembly in Hanoi on March 1, 2019. (Photo by SeongJoon Cho / POOL / AFP) (Photo credit should read SEONGJOON CHO/AFP via Getty Images)
HANOI, VIETNAM - MARCH 01: Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and North Korean officials during a welcoming ceremony at the President Palace on March 1, 2019 in Hanoi, Vietnam. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un began his two-day official visit to Vietnam on Friday after his second summit with U.S. President Donald Trump in Hanoi which ended without an agreement made. (Photo by Tuan Mark/Getty Images)
PANMUNJOM, SOUTH KOREA - JUNE 12: In this handout photo provided by the Ministry of Unification, Kim Yo-Jong (R), sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, shakes hands with Chung Eui-yong (L), South Korea's top national security advisor, during a meeting to deliver a condolence message and flowers on her brother's behalf for former first lady Lee He-ho's funeral at border village of Panmunjom between South and North Korea on June 12, 2019 in Panmunjom, South Korea. The sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is due to deliver a condolence message and some flowers to South Korea at the border village of Panmunjom today after the death of former South Korean first lady Lee Hee-ho. Chung Eui-yong, head of the presidential National Security Office, Vice Unification Minister Suh Ho and Rep. Park Jie-won of the minor opposition Party of Democracy and Peace will accept the message and flowers. (Photo by South Korean Ministry of Unification via Getty Images)
PANMUNJOM, SOUTH KOREA - JUNE 12: In this handout photo provided by the Ministry of Unification, Kim Yo-Jong (R), sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, talks with Chung Eui-yong (L), South Korea's top national security advisor, during a meeting to deliver a condolence message and flowers on her brother's behalf for former first lady Lee He-ho's funeral at border village of Panmunjom between South and North Korea on June 12, 2019 in Panmunjom, South Korea. The sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is due to deliver a condolence message and some flowers to South Korea at the border village of Panmunjom today after the death of former South Korean first lady Lee Hee-ho. Chung Eui-yong, head of the presidential National Security Office, Vice Unification Minister Suh Ho and Rep. Park Jie-won of the minor opposition Party of Democracy and Peace will accept the message and flowers. (Photo by South Korean Ministry of Unification via Getty Images)
North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un's Sister Kim Yo Jong holds a flower bouquet during a welcoming ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi on March 1, 2019. (Photo by LUONG THAI LINH / POOL / AFP) (Photo credit should read LUONG THAI LINH/AFP via Getty Images)
Kim Yo Jong, the younger sister of North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un is arrives at the Singapore's Gardens by the Bay, Marina Bay Sands on night before summit on June 11, 2018 in Singapore. (Photo by Chris Jung/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
PYONGYANG, NORTH KOREA - MAY 31, 2018: North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un's sister Kim Yo-jong seen at Kumsusan Palace of the Sun. Valery Sharifulin/TASS (Photo by Valery Sharifulin TASS via Getty Images)
PANMUNJOM, SOUTH KOREA - APRIL 27: North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un (L), sister Kim Yo Jong (R) attend the Inter-Korean Summit at the Peace House on April 27, 2018 in Panmunjom, South Korea. Kim and Moon meet at the border today for the third-ever inter-Korean summit talks after the 1945 division of the peninsula, and first since 2007 between then President Roh Moo-hyun of South Korea and Leader Kim Jong-il of North Korea. (Photo by Pool/Getty Images)
PANMUNJOM, NORTH KOREA - MAY 26: In this handout image provided by South Korean Presidential Blue House, South Korean President Moon Jae-in (R) shakes hands with Kim Yo-Jong (C) sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un upon his arrival for the meeting on May 26, 2018 in Panmunjom, North Korea. North and South Korean leaders held the surprise second summit after U.S. President Donald Trump cancelled the meeting with Kim Jong-un scheduled for June 12. Trump has since indicated that the meeting could take place a day after. (Photo by South Korean Presidential Blue House via Getty Images)
SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - FEBRUARY 11: In this handout image provided by the South Korean Presidential Blue House, North Korea's nominal head of state Kim Yong-Nam (L) weeps while watching a performance of North Korea's Samjiyon Orchestra with Kim Yo-Jong, North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un's sister and South Koran President Moon Jae-In (3rd R) at National Theater on February 11, 2018 in Seoul, South Korea. (Photo by South Korean Presidential Blue House via Getty Images)
PYEONGCHANG-GUN, SOUTH KOREA - FEBRUARY 10: President of South Korea Moon Jae-in, his wife Kim Jung-sook, IOC President Thomas Bach, President of North Korea Kim Yong-nam, Kim Yo-jong, sister of Kim Jong-un attend the women's ice hockey preliminary match between Korea and Switzerland during the 2018 Winter Olympic Games at Kwandong Hockey Centre on February 10, 2018 in Gangneung, Pyeongchang, South Korea. (Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)
GANGNEUNG, SOUTH KOREA - FEBRUARY 10: Swiss President Alain Berset shakes hands with Kim Yo-jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, during the Women's Ice Hockey Preliminary Round - Group B game between Switzerland and Korea on day one of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at Kwandong Hockey Centre on February 10, 2018 in Gangneung, South Korea. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
PYEONGCHANG-GUN, SOUTH KOREA - FEBRUARY 10: President of South Korea Moon Jae-in, IOC President Thomas Bach, President of North Korea Kim Yong-nam, Kim Yo-jong, sister of Kim Jong-un came down on the ice to greet the players of united Korea despite the defeat following the women's ice hockey preliminary match between Korea and Switzerland during the 2018 Winter Olympic Games at Kwandong Hockey Centre on February 10, 2018 in Gangneung, Pyeongchang, South Korea. (Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's sister Kim Yo Jong (R) and North Korea's ceremonial head of state Kim Yong Nam attend the women's preliminary round ice hockey match between Switzerland and the Unified Korean team during the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at the Kwandong Hockey Centre in Gangneung on February 10, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / Brendan Smialowski (Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)
US Vice President Mike Pence (R), North Korea's Kim Jong Uns sister Kim Yo Jong (C) and wife of US Vice President Karen Pence attend the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at the Pyeongchang Stadium on February 9, 2018. / AFP PHOTO / Odd ANDERSEN (Photo credit should read ODD ANDERSEN/AFP via Getty Images)
PYEONGCHANG-GUN, SOUTH KOREA - FEBRUARY 09: Kim Yo Jong, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, arrives at the opening ceremony of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at PyeongChang Olympic Stadium on February 9, 2018 in Pyeongchang-gun, South Korea. (Photo by Patrick Semansky - Pool /Getty Images)
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The development is a surprise because Kim Yo Jong, who became an alternate member of the Politburo last year, was widely expected to receive a full bureau membership during a ruling Workers' Party congress that ended Tuesday. A Politburo membership is viewed as crucial for high-level officials hoping to thrive in Kim Jong Un's government because he's made key decisions at bureau meetings, including the 2013 move to execute his powerful uncle Jang Song Taek, and the 2012 purge of military chief Ri Yong Ho.

When the eight-day congress, the first of its kind since 2016, opened last week, Kim Yo Jong, who is thought to be about 32, sat on the leadership podium, standing out amid the often elderly, overwhelmingly male party cadres. But when the congress on Monday announced a list of 30 alternate and full members of the Politburo, including the 37-year-old Kim Jong Un, her name wasn't there.

Kim Yo Jong hasn't been purged or forced to quit politics, a fate that some officials have met under Kim Jong Un, and she still retains her membership in the party's Central Committee, also a high-level body. But when she released a statement criticizing South Korea on Wednesday, state media identified her as a "vice department director" of the party, a lower rank than her previous title of "first vice department director."

Kim Jong Un is urging his 25 million people to rally behind his leadership to overcome what he has called his nation's "worst-ever" difficulties. North Korea has faced coronavirus-related economic shocks, a spate of natural disasters last summer and persistent U.S.-led sanctions over its pursuit of illicit nuclear weapons. During the congress, Kim vowed to expand his nuclear arsenal and build a stronger, self-reliant economy.

"The congress' purpose is to solidify Kim Jong Un's leadership. If Kim Yo Jong had become a full Politburo member, all eyes would have been on her ... and Kim Jong Un likely felt that as a burden," Ko Young-hwan, a former deputy head of the Institute for National Security Strategy, a think tank run by South Korea's spy agency, said during a TV news program Monday.

Previously little known to outsiders, Kim Yo Jong has soared politically since her brother inherited power after their father, Kim Jong Il, died in late 2011.

The current Kims are the third generation of their family to rule North Korea, and their leadership is based on a personality cult established after their grandfather Kim Il Sung founded the country in 1948. Their mythical "paektu" bloodline, named after the North's most sacred mountain, allows only direct family members to rule the country.

Kim Yo Jong rose to international prominence after her brother's high-stakes nuclear diplomacy with President Donald Trump and other world leaders in 2018 and 2019. In those meetings, her proximity to Kim Jong Un sparked speculation that she was serving as her brother's chief of staff.

In South Korea, she built an image as "a peace messenger" after she attended the opening ceremony of the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, becoming the first member of the North's ruling family to visit the South since the end of the 1950-53 Korean War.

Last year, however, she abruptly changed course by launching harsh diatribes against South Korea and putting pressure on the United States to make concessions amid deadlocked nuclear diplomacy. North Korea's state media said she was in charge of relations with South Korea, and outside experts speculated that she might be handing U.S. affairs as well.

In her statement on Wednesday, she slammed South Korea for provoking the North by announcing that it had detected intelligence that North Korea held a military parade or a rehearsal for such a parade this week.

When unconfirmed global rumors about Kim Jong Un's health rose last year, some observers said Kim Yo Jong was next in line to rule North Korea if her brother became incapacitated. South Korea's spy agency said later that she was virtually the North's No. 2 official but hadn't been anointed as her brother's heir.

"Kim Jong Un likely held his sister responsible for worsened (external) ties, as she had no achievements in relations with the U.S. and South Korea," said Kim Yeol Soo, an analyst with South Korea's Korea Institute for Military Affairs.

Whatever the reason for her apparent loss of the Politburo job, many experts say her political clout likely remains unchanged thanks to her direct link to the paektu bloodline. There's also a feeling that Kim Jong Un could eventually give her another high-profile job.

Oh, the analyst, said Kim Yo Jong is likely the second-most powerful woman in North Korean history after Kim Song Ae, the late second wife of Kim Il Sung.

"Kim Yo Jong can meet and talk to Kim Jong Un freely anytime ... so we can't help saying that she has a tremendous influence," Oh said. "As she gets older, her roles will be bigger."

But, he added, her rise could end if she covets more power. "She has to be careful about that," he said.

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