North Korea's 'princess' now one of the secretive state's top policy makers

SEOUL (Reuters) - The promotion of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's 28-year-old sister to the country's top decision-making body is a sign he is strengthening his position by drawing his most important people closer to the center of power, experts and officials say.

Kim Yo Jong was named as an alternate member of the politburo within the ruling Workers' Party of Korea - the opaque, all-powerful party organ where top state affairs are decided, the North's official media said on Sunday.

It makes her only the second woman in patriarchal North Korea to join the exclusive club after Kim Kyong Hui, who held powerful roles when her brother Kim Jong Il ruled the country.

"Since she is a female, Kim Jong Un likely does not see her as a threat and a challenge to his leadership," said Moon Hong-sik, research fellow at the Institute for National Security Strategy. "As the saying goes ‘blood is thicker than water,’ Kim Jong Un thinks Kim Yo Jong can be trusted."

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Kim Yo Jong, the 'princess' of North Korea
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Kim Yo Jong, the 'princess' of North Korea
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. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his sister Kim Yo Jong attend an opening ceremony of a newly constructed residential complex in Ryomyong street in Pyongyang, North Korea April 13, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
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. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
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Unlike her aunt, who was promoted to the politburo in 2012 after serving more than three decades in the party, Kim Yo Jong has risen to power at an unprecedented pace.

Kim Kyong Hui has not been seen since her husband, Jang Song Thaek, once regarded as the No.2 leader in Pyongyang, was executed in 2013. South Korea's spy agency believes she is now in a secluded place near Pyongyang undergoing a treatment for an unidentified disease, according to an August briefing to parliament.

Jang and his wife are not the only relatives to fall from Kim Jong Un's favor.

Kim Jong Un's estranged half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, was killed with a toxic nerve agent at a Malaysian airport in February. Two women are on trial for the murder, which South Korean and U.S. officials believe Kim Jong Un's regime was behind.

Kim Jong Nam, who lived in exile in Macau, had criticized his family's dynastic rule and his brother had issued a standing order for his execution, according to some South Korean lawmakers.

IN A PONYTAIL AND BLACK SUITS

The smartly dressed Kim Yo Jong, her hair usually pulled back in a ponytail and mostly seen in black suits and black-heeled shoes, made her first debut on state media in December 2011, seen standing tearfully next to Kim Jong Un at the funeral of their father.

Since then, Kim has made several appearances with her brother, giggling at concerts, riding a white horse, smiling as she receives flowers on his behalf at state functions.

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Everything you didn't know about Kim Jong Un
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Everything you didn't know about Kim Jong Un

1. While Kim Jong Un's birthday on January 8 is a national holiday, it is unknown exactly how old the North Korean leader is. It's widely believed he is in his early-mid thirties. In 2016, the U.S. Treasury Department listed his birth year as 1984 when they placed sanctions on North Korea.

 (KCNA via REUTERS)

2. Kim Jong Un is the world's youngest leader, according to the date listed by the Treasury. 

(STR/AFP/Getty Images)

3. Kim Jong Un is very passionate about basketball. He is reportedly a big fan of Michael Jordan and has a friendly relationship with Jordan's former Chicago Bulls teammate Dennis Rodman. Rodman has visited the secluded nation multiple times and even sang him "Happy Birthday" before an exhibition game in Jan. 2014. 

(REUTERS/KCNA)

4. Kim Jong Un reportedly has a love for smoking, whiskey and cheese

(KCNA/via Reuters)

5. Kim Jong Un's older half-brother Kim Jong Nam was killed in Feb. 2017 by two women who smeared VX nerve agent on his face at an airport in Kuala Lumpur. The women were arrested following his death. Many believe the hit was directed by North Korea. 

(KCNA; REUTERS)

6. Kim Jong Un has two college degrees. One is in physics from Kim il Sung University and another as an Army officer obtained from the Kim Il Sung Military University.

(KCNA/REUTERS)

7. Kim Jong Un attended boarding school in Switzerland. It is widely disputed how much time he spent at the school. Most reports say he was abroad from 1998-2000. 

(KCNA/REUTERS)

8. Kim Jong Un is the only general in the world that does not have any military experience. 

(KCNA/REUTERS)

9. He married Ri Sol Ju in 2009. The couple has at least one daughter named Ju Ae. 

(KCNA/REUTERS)

10. Kim Jong Un had his uncle Jang Song Thaek arrested and executed for treachery in 2013. 

(REUTERS/Kyodo)

11. Kim Jong Un hand selected North Korea's first all-female music group -- Moranbong Band. They made their debut in 2012. 

(ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)

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Her youth and bubbly personality seen in state media are in stark contrast to the usually glum generals and aging party cadres who follow Kim Jong Un on official duties.

Having previously only occasionally appeared in the background, the young heiress has moved to the front and center of media photos more recently, assisting her brother at numerous high-profile state events.

At a massive military parade in April to mark the 105th birth anniversary of founding father Kim Il Sung, she was seen rushing out from behind pillars to bring paperwork to her brother as he prepared to give an address.

The same month, she stood alongside him during the unveiling ceremony of a construction project in Pyongyang.

In March 2016, she accompanied Kim Jong Un to a field guidance for nuclear scientists, where he claimed successful miniaturisation of nuclear warheads.

"Kim Yo Jong's official inclusion in the 30-strong exclusive club of North Korea's chief policy makers means her role within the regime will be expanded further," Cheong Seong-chang, senior fellow at the Sejong Institute south of Seoul.

BEHIND THE VEIL

Apart from her age, little is known about Kim Yo Jong. She was publicly identified for the first time in February 2011 when a South Korean TV station caught her at a Eric Clapton concert in Singapore with her other brother, Kim Jong Chol.

The three, who all reportedly went to school in Switzerland, are full blood siblings, born to Kim Jong Il's fourth partner, Ko Yong Hui. 

Kim Jong Chol, the oldest of Kim Jong Il's sons, does not involve himself in politics, leading a quiet life in Pyongyang where he plays guitar in a band, according to Thae Yong Ho, North Korea’s former deputy ambassador in London who defected to the South.

In 2014, Kim Yo Jong was made vice director of the Workers' Party's Propaganda and Agitation Department, which handles ideological messaging through the media, arts and culture. 

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Recent photos of Kim Jong Un
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Recent photos of Kim Jong Un
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un watches a performance given with splendor at the People's Theatre on Wednesday to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the State Merited Chorus in this photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang on February 23, 2017. KCNA/via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. NOT FOR USE BY REUTERS THIRD PARTY DISTRIBUTORS. SOUTH KOREA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN SOUTH KOREA.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un watches a performance given with splendor at the People's Theatre on Wednesday to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the State Merited Chorus in this photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang on February 23, 2017. KCNA/via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. NOT FOR USE BY REUTERS THIRD PARTY DISTRIBUTORS. SOUTH KOREA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN SOUTH KOREA. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits the Samchon Catfish Farm, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang on February 21, 2017. KCNA/Handout via Reuters ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. SOUTH KOREA OUT. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits the Samchon Catfish Farm, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang on February 21, 2017. KCNA/Handout via Reuters ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. SOUTH KOREA OUT. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits the Samchon Catfish Farm, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang on February 21, 2017. KCNA/Handout via Reuters ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. SOUTH KOREA OUT. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits the Samchon Catfish Farm, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang on February 21, 2017. KCNA/Handout via Reuters ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. SOUTH KOREA OUT. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un guides the test-fire of Pukguksong-2 on the spot, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang February 13, 2017. KCNA/Handout via Reuters ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. SOUTH KOREA OUT. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun on the birth anniversary of late leader Kim Jong Il (the Day of the Shining Star), to pay tribute to him, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang on February 16, 2017. KCNA/Handout via Reuters ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. SOUTH KOREA OUT. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS.
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The position led the U.S. Treasury Department to blacklist her along with six other North Korean officials in January for "severe human rights abuses" and censorship that concealed the regime's "inhumane and oppressive behavior".

Last year, South Korea's former spy chief said Kim Yo Jong was seen "abusing power", punishing propaganda department executives for "minor mistakes".

In a North Korean state media photo in January 2015, she was spotted wearing a ring on her fourth finger during a visit to a child care center.

South Korean intelligence officials say Kim might have wed a schoolmate from the prestigious Kim Il Sung University, but there has been no confirmation of whether she is indeed married or to whom.

(Additional reporting by James Pearson and Haejin Choi in Seoul; Editing by Lincoln Feast)

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