The people closest to Kim Jong-un — supreme leader of North Korea and the world’s only nuclear-armed millennial — resemble in many ways the members of a traditional royal court. There is the chief minister and No 2 — the most powerful politician in the kingdom, gatekeeper and chief adviser to the monarch. There is the head of foreign affairs, a tough, experienced and hard-drinking diplomat. Then there is the heir, still only a child, but already a regular companion of the king as he goes about the country greeting his subjects and saluting his soldiers.

To students of history, these are familiar types; they might be figures from the court of Henry VIII. But one remarkable thing sets Kim’s intimate circle apart from the Tudors, or any of the previous ruling cabals of North Korea: all of them are female.

His foreign minister is Choe Son-hui, a fluent English speaker said by foreign officials who have met her to be capable of drinking — and smoking — her male colleagues under the table. Kim’s heir is his daughter, Ju-ae, no more than 11 years old but frequently seen at his side on the viewing platforms of military parades and at the launching of ballistic missiles.

Choe Son-hui, North Korea’s foreign minister, is said by foreign officials who have met her to be capable of drinking—and smoking—her male colleagues under the table.

Kim’s head of protocol is Hyon Song-wol, once a famous pop star and, according to rumor, his ex-girlfriend. Former North Korean first ladies were never seen or even mentioned in the state media, but Kim’s wife, Ri Sol-ju, is routinely filmed and photographed with her husband. For influence and authority, though, none comes close to the most important woman in his life — his younger sister, Kim Yo-jong.

Her formal role has changed over the years; officially, she is in the middle ranks of a political and military pecking order still dominated by the names of older and more experienced men. But, to those who follow the opaque workings of the Pyongyang leadership, there is little doubt that she is the most powerful and important person in North Korea. “Some days, I think they just put Kim Jong-un in there as a military leader because they needed a big dude to project authority,” says Michael Madden, a Pyongyang expert who runs the website North Korea Leadership Watch. “Kim Yo-jong is the brains behind the operation.”

Singer, performer, and politician Hyon Song-wol.

Nothing is clear or certain in North Korea — but she could easily end up being the country’s next supreme leader. When Kim Jong-un succeeded his father in 2011, few outside the capital knew his sister’s name. Now she directs her country’s relations with its most important enemies, oversees its propaganda operations and stands as her brother’s heir presumptive.

One remarkable thing sets Kim’s intimate circle apart from the Tudors, or any of the previous ruling cabals of North Korea: all of them are female.

Her haughty, angular face, perpetually poised between a sneer and a smile, has been seen alongside her brother in South Korea, China, Singapore and Vietnam. When Kim met Donald Trump, she walked two steps behind her brother and handed him the pen to sign the communiqué; when the cameras trained on the two leaders, she was caught hiding from view behind a tree. But in the past few years she has emerged as a power in her own right, as a propaganda boss, spokeswoman, diplomat and policymaker.

“Kim Yo-jong has risen to run her government’s policy toward the United States and South Korea, while making men twice her age tremble and grovel,” writes the political scientist and historian Sung-Yoon Lee in his forthcoming biography, The Sister. “Over the past three years, Kim Yo-jong has remained her despotic nation’s chief censor, spokeswoman, mocker and threat-and-malice dispenser. All this makes Kim Yo-jong one of the most powerful leaders in the contemporary world, her nation’s foreign policy at her fingertips, and with unfettered access to her nuclear button-controlling brother.”

The most important woman in Kim Jong-un’s life—his younger sister.

How did all of this come about, in a country of patriarchal traditions in which women, by and large, are expected to raise children, manage families and leave the serious business of war and politics to men? The answers lie deep in the history of the Kims, the family that has ruled North Korea since its creation in 1948, as the world’s only hereditary Communist dynasty. Even in the digital age, it remains the most repressive and impenetrable state in the world, and hard facts about its leaders are notoriously difficult to pin down. But from the accounts of defectors, a few foreign visitors and the gleanings of spies, it is possible to piece together the life of Yo-jong, 35, and her brother, Jong-un, 39. Even in incomplete outline, it is a story of intense privilege, isolation and pain.

North Korea was founded by Kim Il-sung, the anti-Japanese guerrilla leader and Soviet-sponsored revolutionary who, according to regime myth, made his base on the slopes of Mount Paektu, Korea’s sacred mountain. The whole of the Korean peninsula had been a prewar colony of Japan — after the imperial forces surrendered in 1945, it was divided for convenience between the Soviet-administered north and the American-run south. What had been intended as a temporary arrangement became permanent, cemented by the bloody and ruinous Korean War, which ended in stalemate in 1953, leaving Kim Il-sung firmly in power for the next four decades.

On his death in 1994 he was succeeded by his son, Kim Jong-il, who had seven children by four women, among a string of wives and concubines. But his great love, although never his legal wife, was a dancer named Ko Yong-hui, a North Korean born in Japan, and mother to Jong-un and Yo-jong.

Korean Communist politician Kim Il-sung, with his first wife, Kim Jong-suk, and their son, Kim Jong-il.

Together with their mother and their older brother, Jong-chul, they grew up in the gated leadership compound in Pyongyang, pampered by servants, with all the toys they desired. Yo-jong’s father and mother addressed her as “sweet princess”, according to the family’s live-in Japanese sushi chef who later wrote a memoir. The three children were sent to school in Switzerland, where their identity was a profound secret — Yo-jong was enrolled in 1996 at the Liebefeld-Steinhölzli school in Berne under a pseudonym, passed off as the daughter of a North Korean diplomat.

Yo-jong was about nine years old when her parents sent her away to school, her brother three years older. It would have been a drastic and disorientating relocation — made all the worse by the devastating discovery that their beloved mother, Yong-hui, had terminal breast cancer.

Yong-hui travelled back and forth to France for treatment, allowing for brief meetings with her children and sister, and died in 2004, when Yo-jong was about 17. No one who will talk about it has ever been in a position to ask them — but it is safe to assume that the experience of watching their mother die, far from home, in a country where they could not even own up to their real names, was a terrible one for the Kim children, and that it forced them to depend on one another for support.

She directs her country’s relations with its most important enemies, oversees its propaganda operations and stands as her brother’s heir presumptive.

“Their father had neither the interest nor time nor energy to be emotionally close to his children,” says Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at South Korea’s Kookmin University. “They were privileged but isolated and it’s clear all three of them developed a bond.” As Choi Jin-wook, president of the Center for Strategic and Cultural Studies in Seoul, says: “They are the closest person in the world to one another. Kim Jong-un’s sister is everything to him.”

Back in Pyongyang, the teenage Yo-jong finished her schooling and went to university; some reports say she also met and married the son of a senior general and politician but, if so, nothing has been seen or heard of her husband. Her mother had seen off the other wives and mistresses to establish her children as the successors to what is known as the “Mount Paektu dynasty”. And Yo-jong became a close aide to her father as his health declined following a series of strokes in 2008.

“Some days, I think they just put Kim Jong-un in there as a military leader because they needed a big dude to project authority.”

Jong-il once told a Russian diplomat that his sons were “idle blockheads” — it was his daughter who had the brains. “She learned politics at the foot of the master,” Madden says. “More than her brother, she learned how North Korean politics works, how to deal with the elites, how North Korea interacts with China, with South Korea.”

Jong-il died suddenly in December 2011 at the age of 69. In video footage of his funeral, Yo-jong was seen looking wan with grief. But the state media did not identify her and many foreign observers mistook her at the time for Kim Jong-un’s wife.

North Koreans had become accustomed to knowing nothing about the private lives of their leaders, seeing them only on their visits to military units and new factories. But, from early on, Jong-un crafted an ebullient public image wholly unlike that of his often sour-looking father. Seven months after his succession, he attended a concert in Pyongyang where dancers dressed as Disney characters cavorted for his entertainment. He was accompanied by the young, attractive Ri Sol-ju, who began to be identified as “respected first lady”. His father and grandfather had multiple wives and mistresses, but their existence was never publicly discussed in their lifetimes — and it is impossible to picture either of the previous Kims taking pleasure in characters associated with American popular culture.

North Korea’s First Lady, Ri Sol-ju.

Yo-jong began to emerge publicly in her mid-twenties, after she joined one of the most important bureaus of the North Korean government, the Propaganda and Agitation Department (PAD) in 2012. The Korean War, between North Korea and China on one side and South Korea and a US-led United Nations on the other, had ended in 1953 without a formal peace treaty. Military and diplomatic tension, and the threat of renewed war, have ebbed and surged ever since, marked by the PAD’s famously vituperative statements.

Around 2014, the rhetoric took on a crudity and vileness bracing even by Pyongyang standards. Park Geun-hye, South Korea’s first female president, was denounced as a “prostitute glued to her American master’s groin”. Barack Obama, America’s first black president, was a “crossbreed with unclear blood”, along with other deeply racist slurs. These were presented as quotations from ordinary North Korean citizens; the articles in which they appeared were unsigned. But some Pyongyang-watchers see in them the fingerprints of Yo-jong and the early signs of her propensity for intense and sometimes shocking invective, far more extreme than the statements of her brother.

The tension peaked in 2017 as Trump and Kim Jong-un mobilized their verbal, as well as their military, arsenals to the alarm of the world. Trump referred to Kim as “little rocket man”; Kim denounced the president as a “mentally deranged US dotard”. The North Koreans tested a nuclear warhead and then the intercontinental ballistic missile, which they could potentially drop on the US mainland. Trump dispatched an “armada” of warships and threatened “fire and fury”. But, within months, the two men were shaking hands at a summit in Singapore. In the dramatic shift from crisis to diplomacy, Kim’s women played a central role.

North Korea’s supreme leader, Kim Jong-un; Kim Yo-jong; U.S. secretary of state Mike Pompeo; and Trump during a historic summit in Singapore, 2018.

The pretext for the détente was the Winter Olympics of February 2018, which were held in the South Korean city of Pyeongchang. As a symbol of reconciliation, the two Koreas agreed to field a joint ice hockey team. Kim Yo-jong came with a delegation of North Korean dignitaries, who sat at the Olympic opening ceremony behind the South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, and Trump’s deputy, Mike Pence.

For the first time, this mysterious and intriguing figure was exposed to scrutiny and South Korea’s media analyzed her every move. She was accompanied by Kim Yong-nam, an affable 90-year-old who was North Korea’s ceremonial head of state, but it was very clear who was really in charge.

Yo-jong wore the lightest traces of make-up and plain, elegant clothes: a coat trimmed with fur, a simple black handbag. Her only piece of jewelry was the badge bearing the face of her grandfather, Kim Il-sung, and her father, Kim Jong-il — the mark of the Korean Workers’ Party. As a girl, she had been a dancer. Here, before the cameras, her erect carriage, the slow, careful movements of her head, her habit of looking down her nose at the much older and more senior South Koreans with whom she spoke, including President Moon Jae-in, all projected an atmosphere of calm, control and a strange mixture of courtesy and contempt, deference and disdain.

South Korean president Moon Jae-in; North Korea’s ceremonial head of state, Kim Yong-nam; South Korean First Lady Kim Jung-sook; and Kim Yo-jong, at the 2018 Winter Olympics.

She brought with her a letter from her brother inviting Moon to meet him in person — the encounter that led to the remarkable series of summit meetings between Kim, Trump and Moon, aimed at trading the North’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles in return for the removal of economic sanctions. Barely two years later, it had all come to nothing.

At their second summit in Vietnam in 2019, Trump insisted on an “all or nothing” deal on denuclearization by which Kim would give up not only his nuclear arsenal, but his stocks of chemical and biological weapons. The North Korean leader said that the two sides must first build up trust through a series of lesser agreements — and the gap was unbridgeable. The failure of the Hanoi summit was a blow to the Kims, who retreated from public view for several weeks. There was speculation that officials involved in the debacle, including Yo-jong, had been sacked, and even purged. But by late 2019 she was back, more powerful, better positioned and more aggressive than ever.

Kim smokes, drinks heavily and has long been seriously overweight. He is reported to have gout and diabetes.

At the end of that year, she was seen in a series of spectacular photographs shot on the slopes of Mount Paektu. They showed Kim riding through the snow on a white horse, his sister by his side. Then, after months of deteriorating relations with the South, she marked the end of the détente by literally blowing up the liaison office between the two governments that North Korea hosted — its demolition was announced in advance by Yo-jong, “by virtue of the power invested in me by the supreme leader”.

Kim Yo-jong, Kim Jong-un, and a senior party official ride horses on Mount Paektu.

She has issued some 30 statements in her own name, many of them denunciations of the South Korean leadership, especially the now ex-president, Moon Jae-in, the man with whom she coolly but courteously engaged before the Olympics; since then she has denounced him as “impudent”, a “frightened dog” and an “imbecile”. “Well before their malicious criticism registers in my ear,” she says of her former South Korean interlocutors, “I smell their stinky breath emanating from their bawling traps.”

In the PAD, Yo-jong is technically deputy director. She serves on the State Affairs Commission, the highest policymaking body, and has done two stints in the Politburo, but as a non-voting “alternate” member. Because of her physical closeness to her brother, it is tricky to work out what exactly it is that Yo-jong does — often she looks more like a senior secretary or event organizer than a top-ranking politician. But this proximity is a gauge of the trust he places in her. During a stop on the 60-hour train journey they took to Hanoi, she was photographed holding an ashtray for her brother as he smoked a cigarette. This was taken by some as a sign of subservience. Other Pyongyang watchers understood the point of what Yo-jong was doing: ensuring that no fag ends bearing traces of the Kim DNA were left for foreign spies to pick up.

“When there is a military parade and Kim Jong-un and the leadership are sitting down, his sister is always in the background, moving from place to place,” Choi says. “If she was sitting down, three or four places to the left of the leader, then that would be her position. But in that setting she is the only one who is able to get up and move around, and that is the sign of her power.”

The most intriguing question about Yo-jong is where she fits into Kim Jong-un’s plans for his successor. Although he is not old, Kim smokes, drinks heavily and has long been seriously overweight. He is reported to have gout and diabetes; both his father and grandfather died after heart attacks. If he were to keel over, who would take over? Not his older brother, Jong-chul, an obsessive music fan who has more interest in classic guitars than in politics. Until six months ago there was no stronger candidate than his sister, Yo-jong.

Then, last November, Ju-ae began to appear alongside her father at his public appearances, described in the state media as the “beloved” and “respected daughter”. By contrast, Yo-jong has never been publicly identified as the leader’s sister (although everyone who matters knows). Ju-ae’s unexpected debut raises several questions. Why was she being presented in this way and not her slightly older brother, whose name is not known? (She also has an unidentified younger sibling.) And what is the point of parading her now?

The supreme leader of North Korea, and the world’s only nuclear-armed millennial, accompanied by his daughter, Kim Ju-ae.

One theory is that Ju-ae’s emergence may be symbolic, intended to establish the principle of continuing Kim rule in general. It may also be Kim’s subtle warning to his sister, Yo-jong, not to take her power for granted — and an assurance to his wife that she is the matriarch of the Paektu line. (Yo-jong is believed by South Korean intelligence to have had at least one child of her own not long before the 2018 Olympics, giving her the potential to establish her own dynasty.) But after a dozen appearances by Ju-ae in the space of a few months, there is a simpler possibility: that, although it may be decades before she is named as such, she is being groomed as North Korea’s next leader.

What does this mean for Yo-jong? North Korean politics is unforgiving and those who were once close to ultimate power can suddenly find themselves its victims. In 2017 Kim’s older half-brother, Jong-nam, who had lived abroad for years and who had been mildly critical of his brother, was killed with a nerve agent in Malaysia. There is little doubt it was an assassination authorized by the supreme leader himself.

Four years before that, Kim Jong-un ordered the execution of his uncle, Chang Sung-thaek. Chang had been one of the closest advisers to young Kim and his late father — he was the regent-in-waiting if the old man died before the son was old enough to take over. In other words, he had the same role as Kim Yo-jong does now. In 2013 he was executed for, among other crimes, “failing to applaud enthusiastically”, and publicly denounced as “despicable human scum Chang, who was worse than a dog”.

It is difficult to believe that Yo-jong was not at least consulted about the killings of her uncle and brother. Better than anyone, she must understand how precarious is the position she now occupies. Unconstrained by democratic accountability, by the law or by the scrutiny of the public, she is a surging wave of pure power, propelled by her own determination and ruthlessness and by her parentage — the legitimacy imparted by the “Mount Paektu bloodline”.

Jang Song-thaek (sometimes referred to as Chang Sung-thaek) and Kim Jong-un. Jang was executed in 2013, after being accused of attempting to overthrow the regime.

“Kim Jong-un wants a second-in-command and her position is more prominent than anyone in recent history, but she’s still definitely second,” Lankov says. “She has a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Any change of regime [and] she’s likely to become a scapegoat very soon. Emotionally, she’s devoted to him. Even if she wasn’t, the collapse of the regime would mean the end of everything for her.”

But change, if it comes, could happen with lightning speed — and in the court of the Kims there is a winner, but no runners-up. “Succession in North Korea has always been a blood sport,” Madden says. “It’s like The Duchess of Malfi, or one of those Elizabethan revenge dramas. It will always be like that.”

Richard Lloyd Parry is the Tokyo-based Asia editor for The Times of London