The name of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s sister was missing from a new list of the ruling Workers’ Party’s politburo, according to state media on Monday, raising questions about her status after several years of increasing influence.
The party held elections on Sunday for its Central Committee at a congress, which maps out diplomatic, military and economic policy goals over the next five years.
Kim Yo-jong, Kim Jong-un’s sister, remained a member of the Central Committee but was not included in its politburo, lists released by the North Korean state news agency, KCNA, showed.
In 2017, Kim became only the second woman in patriarchal North Korea to join the exclusive politburo after her aunt Kim Kyong-hui. South Korea’s intelligence agency said in August she was serving as her brother’s “de facto second-in-command”.
But the signals were mixed for observers of the reclusive regime. Her absence from the politburo list comes days after she took the leadership podium for the first time alongside 38 other party executives as the congress began.
“It is too early to draw any conclusion about her status, as she is still a Central Committee member and there’s a possibility that she has taken up other important posts,” said Lim Eul-chul, a professor of North Korean studies at Kyungnam University in Seoul.
Kim Yo-jong’s influence has grown dramatically in recent years.
As she emerged as a political figure, she appeared to be her brother’s personal secretary. She later acted as his special envoy to South Korea and a deputy director of a party department overseeing personnel and organizational affairs.
Michael Madden, a North Korea leadership expert at the U.S.-based Stimson Center, said Kim Yo-jong enjoyed the highest degree of influence on policy deliberations and decisions regardless of whether she was on the politburo or not.
“We have become accustomed to seeing her in a more public role, but Kim Yo-jong’s political roots and her formative career experience are behind the scenes, not sitting on a platform listening to speeches,” he said.
Leader Kim Jong-un cemented his power at the congress with his election as party general secretary, taking the title from his late father, Kim Jong-il.
Kim has wielded almost absolute power in North Korea’s dynastic system since taking over following the death of his father in 2011.
In 2012, the party named the late Kim Jong-il “eternal general secretary” and Kim Jong-un “the first secretary”.
KCNA said the congress “fully approved” a proposal to promote Kim to the position, which it called “the top brain of the revolution” and “the centre of the leadership and the unity”.
“Kim’s takeover shows his confidence, that he has now officially joined the ranks of his father and grandfather,” said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.
“It also indicates his strategic intention to centralize the party system around him and reinforce his one-man rule.”
The reforms to the party leadership announced over the weekend may seem cosmetic to outside observers but they are arcane changes to how policies are decided and implemented, Madden said.
“These changes are intended to give (Kim) a great degree of flexibility in how he makes decisions while also streamlining the processes through which decisions reach his desk,” he said.
One figure who appeared to be rising quickly was Jo Yong Won, newly named to the politburo’s five-strong presidium and the party’s formidable Central Military Commission.
Choe Son Hui, a vice foreign minister who was instrumental in preparing for a second, failed summit with U.S. President Donald Trump in 2019, was demoted.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in pledged efforts to help engineer a breakthrough in stalled denuclearization talks as U.S. President-elect Joe Biden prepares to take office.
Kim has said he would expand diplomacy, but vowed on Friday to develop weapons including a “multi-warhead” intercontinental ballistic missiles, calling the United States “our biggest enemy”.
South Korea’s military said it has detected signs North Korea held a military parade on Sunday night to mark the congress.