The name of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un's sister was missing from a new list of the ruling Workers' Party's executive committee, 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.
NEW: Kim Jong Un was promoted on the sixth day of the Party Congress:— NK NEWS (@nknewsorg) January 11, 2021
-Named general secretary of the Workers' Party of Korea
-Title was previously reserved for his late father, Kim Jong Il
-Kim Yo Jong is no longer on Politburo alternate members listhttps://t.co/x4wc1DJEAZ
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 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 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.
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 regardless of whether she was in 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 'general secretary' of the ruling Workers' Party, a post held by his late father, Kim Jong Il and grandfather.
The appointment is largely symbolic, apparently aimed at bolstering his authority amid growing economic challenges at home.
The party's ongoing congress, the first in kind in five years, announced Kim's new title during its sixth-day session on Sunday.
A congress statement said Kim 'has gloriously realized the historic mission to complete the country's nuclear build-up plan,' according to the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).
They added that 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'.
It's largely seen as a symbolic move as Kim has already been the party's top leader. During a 2016 party congress, he was named to 'party chairman,' largely the equivalent of 'general secretary' held by his father Kim Jong Il and grandfather 'Kim Il Sung.'
Before the 2016 congress, Kim had led the party with the title of 'first secretary.' Since taking power in late 2011, Kim has taken up a slew of top posts and established the similar absolute power enjoyed by his predecessors.
The two late North Korean leaders have kept posthumous titles - Kim Jong Il remains 'eternal general secretary' and Kim Il Sung is 'eternal president.'
'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 centralise the party system around him and reinforce his one-man rule.'
On Sunday, state media said the congress had determined to change the party's 'Executive Policy Council into Secretariat.'
The decision would lead to party officials to relinquish the current titles such as chairman and vice chairman and start using old titles such as secretary or vice secretary.
The reforms to leadership announced over the weekend may seem cosmetic to outside observers but appear aimed at allowing Kim to move away from having to personally manage day to day business and instead exert a more deliberative function, Madden said.
'North Korea currently functions as a tribe and Kim Jong Un wants it to function like a monarchy,' 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 denuclearisation talks as U.S. President-elect Joe Biden prepares to take office.
The congress is being held as Kim faces what appears to be the toughest moment of his nine-year rule because of multiple blows to his country's already-fragile economy caused by pandemic-related border closings that have drastically reduced external trade, a series of natural disasters and U.S.-led sanctions.
Kim has said he would expand diplomacy but vowed on Friday to develop weapons including 'multi-warhead' intercontinental ballistic missiles, calling the United States 'our biggest enemy'.
He said he would build the more sophisticated weapons systems to cope with what he calls intensifying U.S. hostile policy.
Kim's call for more advanced weapons suggested that if he was open to a deal, it would likely be an arms control agreement rather than full denuclearisation, said Tae Yong-ho, a former North Korean diplomat who defected and is now a member of South Korea's parliament.
'He wants to send a very strong message to the incoming Biden administration,' Tae said.
Kim also admitted a previous five-year economic development plan failed and disclosed a new development that focuses on building a stronger self-reliant economy.
This article has been adapted from its original source.
© Associated Newspapers Ltd.