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(LEAD) Demotion of N.K. leader's sister at party congress raises questions over her status

North Korea 14:31 January 11, 2021

(ATTN: ADDS experts' comments in paras 12-15; CLARIFIES para 3)

SEOUL, Jan. 11 (Yonhap) -- The demotion of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's powerful sister at an ongoing party congress is raising questions over whether it signals any change in her status in the top echelons of power.

During the sixth-day session of the party's eighth congress in Pyongyang on Sunday, Kim Yo-jong, the leader's younger sister, was not listed as a member nor as an alternate member of the party's politburo, according to the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).

Her absence on the politburo list drew a sharp contrast with South Korean intelligence authorities' assessment that the younger Kim is "the de facto No. 2 leader" steering overall state affairs.

The National Intelligence Service made the assessment during a closed-door parliamentary briefing in August, with a prediction that she would be elevated to a higher party post in the rare congress, according to lawmakers.

Observers said that it is premature to determine where Kim Yo-jong stands in the top party echelons based on the recent reshuffle, given her pedigree and the great trust the leader places in her.

Kim Yo-jong emerged from the shadows in 2018 as she accompanied her brother at three inter-Korean summits, including the historic summit talks at the inter-Korean border village of Panmunjom in April 2018.

She also gained global attention leading the North Korean delegation to Seoul at the 2018 Winter Olympics.

Kim has handled inter-Korean affairs as first vice director of the Workers' Party Central Committee since late 2019. In April 2020, she was reappointed as an alternate member of the politburo.

She received global spotlight once again last year when leader Kim's prolonged absence from public view sparked rumors about his health and speculation that she could take over if the leader is incapacitated.

She was also heavily involved in cutting inter-Korean communication lines and blowing up an inter-Korean liaison office in June in anger over leafleting campaign by South Korean activists.

She has also released several crucial statements under her name regarding the United States and South Korea, reinforcing the notion that she holds significant sway over external policy issues.

Observers say that regardless of her position in the ruling party, her political role is likely to remain unchanged as she appears to have undertaken a prominent role in state affairs, including inter-Korean affairs, and is family of the North Korean leader.

"Kim Yo-jong can always be appointed as an alternate member or member of the political bureau when Kim Jong-un decides to do so, and her official status can be suddenly elevated like in the case of Jo Yong-won as she regularly assists leader Kim in his public activities," Cheong Seong-chang, a senior researcher at the Sejong Institute, said.

They also point out the possibility that the North could introduce a new agency and place the younger Kim in a key position.

Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, pointed out that Kim's path of promotions is "not linear."

"She comes in and out of prominence and her title tends not to match her importance. She is a confidant and image consultant for her brother as well as a trusted pair of eyes and ears embedded in the North Korean elite," he said in a comment sent to reporters.

All eyes are also on the promotion of Jo Yong-won, a senior party official who was often spotted accompanying the leader during his field trips last year, to a member of the presidium of the political bureau. The position is held by only five people in the North including leader Kim.

A file photo of Kim Yo-jong, younger sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un (Yonhap)

julesyi@yna.co.kr
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