A row has reportedly erupted between Kim Jong-un’s wife and his sister – and the proof may have been broadcast to the world.
Kim Yo-jong, the dictator’s younger sibling, has become prominent in North Korean public life in recent years, and is seen by some as a potential successor.
But speculation about her place has mounted since Kim Ju-ae, the tyrant’s daughter, debuted on regime propaganda in November – and now rumours of a rift have emerged.
Recent images of Kim Jong-un and his child at a football match have only added fuel to the flames, showing the duo front and centre alongside North Korea’s top brass in the VIP box.
Yet Kim Yo-jong sits alone at the furthest end of the back row, seen only as a blur in one photo, hidden behind someone else in another, and cropped out of newsreel footage.
Cheong Seong-chang of the Sejong Institute said Kim’s daughter’s debut could reveal a “power struggle” between the leader’s sister and his wife, Ri Sol-ju.
Writing in Sisa Journal, a South Korean magazine, he said it was like “Ri Sol-ju warning Kim Yo-jong, ‘the succession of power does not go to you, but to our children, so never look at it.'”
Yoshihiro Makino, a visiting professor at Hiroshima University in Japan, said the pitch-side photos could be meant to signal Kim Yo-jong’s place to other North Korean elites.
He told Radio Free Asia: “Kim Jong-un and Kim Yo-jong are close and, until 2020, there were many photos of the two looking at the same height.
“However, these photos are gradually disappearing.
“I think the intention is to make it clear that the Kim Jong-un family is the main body and the Kim Yo-jong family is the side branch.”
Cheong conceded that there was an “overly speculative” aspect to suggestions of a rift.
But North Korea expert Michael Madden said “it is not as outlandish as previous rumours about North Korea’s core elite”.
He said: “The regime has ideological slogans about ‘single-hearted unity’ and we see these people attend public events together like the recent parade. But it does not necessarily mean they like each other or that they are even cordial in their interactions.”
“Fraught relationships and tension can thrive among a self-selected and isolated group.”
He continued: “There is a 50-year history of Kim family disputes over the succession issue. One reason that we might be seeing Kim Ju-ae is because her mother feels it necessary to raise the succession claim of one of her children now.”
“Both Madame Ri and Kim Yo-jong have children who can claim the Paektusan revolutionary lineage of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.”
He added that Kim Jong-un was allegedly picked as his father’s successor when he was just eight years old, “so it would not be premature” for him to pick his young daughter for the top job.
Madden added: “Even if there is a succession-related dispute between Ri Sol-ju and Kim Yo-jong, this is not something which will involve other elites.”
“As we have seen with the Windsors, it will be kept in the family.”
The speculation also suggests that the first lady is not a bystander in Pyongyang politics, as some might assume.
He said: “Analysts have termed the rift ‘overly speculative’ but the fact they deigned to discuss it means that Ri Sol-ju is viewed as having some degree of influence.
“Even if this is a trial balloon or something someone simply made up, it does mean that she is politically active and influential in Pyongyang’s corridors of power.”