As unconfirmed reports about North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who was last seen on April 11, continue to churn, speculation about his health has ramped up, including on who might replace him.
Details on Kim's whereabouts or condition haven't been confirmed by any news source, including North Korean state-run media, although a spokesperson for South Korea's presidential office said he is "alive and well."
When Kim Jong Il died in 2011 of a heart attack, Kim took over, and each leadership change in North Korea has raised the specter of a leadership vacuum in the Kim dynasty, which has ruled since the country was taken over by communists in 1948.
Kim's younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, who is believed to be 31, is reportedly in charge of key government functions and serves as the vice director of the ruling Workers’ Party’s powerful Central Committee. A number of experts have speculated that because she is a member of the Kim dynasty and the daughter of former leader Kim Jong Il, Kim Yo Jong could be tapped to become Kim's replacement in the absence of an heir.
“Kim Yo Jong will be for the time being the main power base with control of the organization and guidance department, the judiciary and public security,” Cho Han-bum of the Korea Institute for National Unification told Reuters.
So far, Kim Yo Jong has kept a relatively low profile and only released her first public statement in March in criticizing South Korea over live-fire exercises. In 2017, she was blacklisted, along with other North Korean officials, by the Treasury Department for “severe human rights abuses.”
She has been seen at her brother's side in propaganda photos and was involved in diplomatic meetings between Pyongyang and Washington. During the 2018 Winter Olympics, she served as a delegate and sat near South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
The North Korea Leadership Watch website claims that Kim Yo Jong "joined her brothers in Berne, Switzerland," and she "attended an elementary school, close to where Jong Un studied" between 1996 and 2000. In 2014, North Korean state media identified her as a deputy director of the "Propaganda and Agitation Department," the website says.
"Among the North's power elite, Kim Yo Jong has the highest chance to inherit power, and I think that possibility is more than 90 percent," said analyst Cheong Seong-Chang at the private Sejong Institute in South Korea, reported The Associated Press. "North Korea is like a dynasty, and we can view the Paektu descent as royal blood so it's unlikely for anyone to raise any issue over Kim Yo Jong taking power."
Some experts noted that North Korean politics are dominated by men, meaning it would be unlikely that Kim Yo Jong would be able to rule for long.
"North Korean politics and the three hereditary power transfers have been male-centred. I wonder whether she can really overcome bloody socialist power struggles and exercise her power," said Nam Sung-wook, a professor at Korea University in South Korea, AP reported.
White House national security adviser Robert O'Brien, who said the United States is monitoring reports on Kim Jong Un's health, told reporters last week that "the basic assumption would be that maybe it would be someone in the family" who replaces him.
"But again," he added, "it's too early to talk about that because we just don't know, you know, what condition Chairman Kim is in and we'll have to see how it plays out."
On Sunday, Chung-in Moon, a foreign policy adviser to South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in, told Fox News: “Our government position is firm. Kim Jong Un is alive and well.” Kim has been staying in the Wonsan area since April 13 and added that “no suspicious movements have so far been detected," Moon added.
Asian media outlets reported over the weekend that Kim was either dead or in a vegetative state.