KIM Jong-un's sister has vanished from public view amid speculation that she is being positioned to replace him.
The disappearance follows months of reports about Kim's ill-health, and experts say sister Kim Yo-jong could be lying low for fear of reprisals by her despot brother.
Recent months have seen the 32-year-old take on an increasingly prominentrole within the regime.
She has frequently been seen alongside her brother, and has also issued a number of public statements echoing his threats towards South Korea.
Last week, South Korea's National Intelligence Service also said that Kim had begun handing certain powers over to his sister.
Despite the reports of her rising position, Kim Yo-jong hasn't been spotted in public since July 27, when she stood beside her brother during a military ceremony to mark the anniversary of the end of the Korean War.
She could not be seen in photos released on Wednesday showing Kim at a meeting of senior officials of the politburo discussing North Korea's response to the coronavirus.
She is reportedly a "candidate" member of the politburo, and has frequently been spotted at such meetings in the past.
Experts have speculated that Kim Yo-jong has opted to remain out of the public eye because she fears being seen to be taking too much power from her brother.
Speaking to South Korea's Chosun Ilbo newspaper, Prof. Nam Sung-wook of Korea University said: "In the past, anyone was deprived of their position the moment they were described as the No. 2 person in the North.
"There must be a semblance of checks and balances, although Kim Yo-jong is a family member."
The siblings' uncle, Jang Song-thaek, was previously one of the most powerful figures in North Korea and became de facto leader as their father's health declined prior to his death in 2011.
In December 2013, Jang was abruptly accused of being a "counter-revolutionary", stripped of his posts, and executed.
'WOULD RULE WITH AN IRON FIST'
Questions about Kim's condition first arose since in mid-April, when he disappeared from public view himself.
He re-emerged in late May and has been seen in public a number of times since, but reports suggest he underwent an operation on his heart after collapsing while on a walk and is suffering ongoing health problems.
The reports sparked widespread discussion about a possible power vacuum in the event of his death and who his most likely successor would be.
Speaking to the New York Post, Sung-Yoon Lee, a professor at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, said he believed Kim Yo-jong's rise to be part of a strategy to ensure the stability of the regime.
“Clearly there has been a contingency plan rolled out since early March to bolster Kim Yo-jong’s credentials and have her, if and when necessary, to seize the reins of power should Kim Jong-un become incapacitated,” he said.
David Maxwell, a retired US colonel who previously worked on North Korea within the Pentagon, said Kim Yo-jong remained an unknown quantity, but could prove to be more brutal than her brother should she take power.
"My speculation — given the reputation and history of the family — is that she would rule with an iron fist," he said.
He said many experts believed before Kim Jong-un took power that he would be more open to the outside world than his father, but that that hope hadn't been realised.
“I think we have to assume that every successor is worse than the last," he said.
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