The news that the sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has married the son of one of the country’s most powerful officials has caught the attention of US intelligence analysts anxious for a glimpse into the inner workings of the secretive nation.
It is a pairing that could represent North Korea’s next big power couple.
It’s a matter of ruling Workers’ Party law that the bloodline of North Korea’s first leader, Kim Il-sung, are the only ones who can legitimately lead the country.
“So you’re dealing with a family dynasty,” says Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. “If you’re looking for where this third generation is going, you now have a new key power couple who will shape the direction of North Korea.”
Before he married, the groom, whose name is thought to be Choe Song, was one of the most eligible bachelors in the country. He is the son of the high-ranking party Vice Marshal Choe Ryong-hae, whose father fought alongside Kim Il-sung against Japanese occupation in the so-called 88th brigade, the members of which became the country’s ruling elite.
Choe Ryong-hae was tapped to travel to Seoul in October as an emissary in an unexpected and unprecedented high-level visit that could “possibly pave the way towards unification talks, or some kind of diplomatic path forward” with South Korea, says Dr. Cronin.
He also was sent to Moscow in November to sign an economic and security cooperation agreement with Russia, and possibly as a prelude to a meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Kim later this year.
Kim is reportedly close to his sister, Kim Yo-jong, who is about four years younger than he is, Cronin says. “She’s been one of the few in pictures that go back to the funeral of Kim Jong-il, and she has steadfastly taken on a more visible role, as measured in North Korean press photos and mentions.”
Closely monitoring these North Korean press reports is in large part how US intelligence officials glean information about the reclusive regime.
It is not even clear, for example, whether Kim has children himself. “There have been reports of a child, and maybe even a second one,” Cronin says. This has been gleaned from press photos of Kim’s wife “getting a little heavier, disappearing for a few months.”
Being opaque is one of the key ways the family endeavors to maintain power. “It’s a very secretive family, a secretive regime, a secretive country,” Cronin says. “It wants to manipulate information – it doesn’t want you to have it.”
Kim’s sister is also the only other member of the family to have a party role, which is telling, Cronin says.
“She has some oversight for party discipline, protocol, outreach,” he says. “It seems to be one of these broad portfolios that may conceal the fact that she has no real responsibilities, but she has power.”
Before being dispatched to Seoul and Moscow, for example, Choe was in charge of sports and culture.
“What’s in a name here? It doesn’t seem like an important portfolio, but he was getting all of the outside money from other countries, concealing illegal banking deals,” Cronin says.
Now that his son has married Kim’s sister, the family is being watched particularly closely by intelligence analysts, with some expectation that the couple could become key envoys for the regime – and perhaps offer new hope of dialogue with South Korea.
The dialogue could in turn “lead to detente and a new era of diplomacy. It could also lead to failure,” Cronin says.
While the dialogue isn’t likely to lead to reunification, it could portend some form of confederated union that offers a path “many Koreans have dreamed about – making physical connections between the south and the north,” Cronin adds.
“There are huge impediments toward that kind of change – but it could happen.”