About 20 years ago, while traveling across Russia in his forest-green armored train, Kim Jong Il is reported to have made something of a confession to a foreign emissary.
It was 2001 and the North Korean leader was touring the country for three weeks. Accompanying him was Konstantin Pulikovsky, a respected Russian diplomat who, as the story goes, used the rare opportunity with one of the world’s most reclusive leaders to talk about family.
Kim was believed to have had seven children. His youngest son and future successor, Kim Jong Un, was in his mid-teens at the time. It wasn’t until several years later that the North Korean leader’s health would start failing him, and it’s not clear if he had begun thinking about his legacy and how to keep the family dynasty going.
So when Pulikovsky asked about the children, Kim spoke highly of his two daughters.
His sons, however, he called “idle blockheads.”
Michael Madden, an expert on North Korea’s leadership who runs a website on the subject and is a government consultant, said he’s repeated that anecdote many times over the years when asked about the Kim family. The story has been repeated in various media and academic reports several times since 2001, but CNN could not independently confirm it.
“Kim Jong Il loved his sons, but did not necessarily have a high opinion of what they were doing with their lives,” Madden said.
Despite that apparent assessment, Kim eventually chose his youngest son to succeed him. The grooming process began about eight years later, in 2009, when Kim Jong Un was given a coming out party. Kim Jong Il died of a heart attack two years later.
While it’s likely the world will never know if Kim seriously considered one of his daughters for the top job, his adoration for his youngest child, Kim Yo Jong, has been well documented by North Korean standards. Kenji Fujimoto, the pen name of a former sushi chef for the Kim family, told The Washington Post that Kim Jong Il referred to her as “Princess Yo Jong” and “sweet Yo Jong.” Kim Yo Jong always sat to her father’s left at supper, while Kim Jong Il’s wife sat to his right, Fujimoto said in a book recounting his experience in North Korea.
However, Kim Jong Il may have believed that it would be a tough sell naming a woman as the next North Korean leader – especially with multiple sons available.
North Korea is a notoriously patriarchal country, where women are expected to be dutiful and subordinate wives and doting mothers before all else. Defectors say misogyny, gender discrimination and sexual violence are rampant.
“There’s a base culture of just very strong, traditional patriarchal gender norms and female disempowerment,” said Sokeel Park, the director of research and strategy for Liberty in North Korea, a human rights group that assists defectors.
Yet Kim Yo Jong’s position among the North Korean leadership is significant. Her name was among the first mentioned as a possible successor to her brother when he disappeared from public view for almost three weeks, only to emerge in state media Saturday with Kim Yo Jong by his side.
Kim Jong Un’s mysterious absence prompted important questions about North Korea’s plans for the future – especially given that he is overweight and reportedly both a heavy smoker and drinker.
Experts say if anything was to happen to him before his young children are old enough to take over, Kim Yo Jong could be the safest and most likely heir.
If she did succeed Kim, it would put a woman at the center of one of the most repressive regimes on the planet.
The Korean Peninsula isn’t an easy place to be a woman.
North Korea is hardly the bastion of equality that Kim Il Sung promised would be achieved through economic liberation.
While women are an important part of the workforce, and drivers of the limited private markets inside the country – since all men have jobs assigned by the state – female defectors say they still face widespread discrimination. Furthermore, they lack the professional and social opportunities of their male counterparts.
“Women always have to be modest,” said Nara Kang, who left North Korea in 2015 and now lives in the south. “Men hold the purse strings a lot of times and men have all the social status.”
Sexual violence is also a major problem. It’s “so common that it has come to be accepted as part of ordinary life,” Human Rights Watch alleged in a 2018 report.
North Korea denies this, as it does all allegations of widespread abuses – which it often refers to as an imperialist “human rights racket.” “Women enjoy equal rights with men in all fields,” diplomats from the country wrote to a United Nations panel on women’s issues in 2017.