Photo ① North Korean leader Kim Jong-un first brought his daughter Kim Ju-ae into the spotlight by having her join him as he gave guidance on the test launch of the Hwasong-17 ICBM on Nov. 18, 2022. The above photo ran in Rodong Sinmun at the time. (KCNA/Yonhap)
Why does North Korean leader Kim Jong-un keep bringing his daughter Kim Ju-ae to public events?
Since Ju-ae showed up at Kim’s on-the-spot guidance of a test launch of the Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on Nov. 18, 2022 (Photo ①), she has accompanied her father to 25 such events (as of Feb. 9), for a rate of around 1.6 appearances per month.
The vast majority of those were large-scale political or military events, including the launches of ballistic missiles and spy satellites, military unit visits and military parades and concerts. Only two of them were related to the economy, including a visit to the Kwangchon Chicken Farm.
Given Ju-ae’s repeated appearances, her photograph has often graced the front page of the Rodong Sinmun.
The Rodong Sinmun is the official organ of the Central Committee of the Workers Party of Korea, which oversees all the country’s activities (according to Article 11 of the North Korean constitution). As such, the newspaper is the most authoritative media in the North.
Under these circumstances, South Korea’s National Intelligence Service has officially judged Ju-ae to be “a likely candidate for successor” to ruler Kim Jong-un.
Since Ju-ae was born in 2013 (as estimated by Seoul), she is still young; in South Korea, she would be in her final years of elementary school. Yet high-ranking officials in the North Korean government, who are often 70 years old or above, treat the girl with a reverence that borders on the bizarre.
Korean Central Television broadcast footage (Photo ②) of Pak Jong-chon, a marshal of the Korean People’s Army and vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, getting down on his knees to whisper something in Ju-ae’s ear.
What is the political significance of North Korea’s unfamiliar treatment of the girl Kim Ju-ae, who is referred to by the Rodong Sinmun, and other media, with the honorific “esteemed”?
Kim Jong-un has never openly revealed why he takes his daughter with him to major public events, and nothing she has ever said has made it into the Rodong Sinmun. So for now, we are left to conjecture about both Kim’s true intentions and his daughter’s political status.
Photo ②: During a military parade marking the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea on Sept. 8, 2023, Pak Jong-chon, the vice chairman of the Central Military Commission of the Workers’ Party of Korea, was caught whispering into the ear of Kim Ju-ae. (KCTV/Yonhap)
Succession classes for the fourth in the Paektu bloodline?
There are many clues that back up the idea that Ju-ae may be next in line for power.
The first clue was revealed in a pledge of loyalty and faith to the party Kim received from scientists and technicians published on the third page of the Rodong Sinmun on Nov. 27, 2022.
The front page of that day’s edition of the newspaper was adorned with a commemorative picture (Photo ③) of Kim Jong-un, his daughter, and those who had contributed to the success of the launch of the new ICBM Hwasong-17.
The letter itself was a statement devoted to Kim Jong-un written by scientists, technicians, workers and officials of the Academy of Defence Science. But the line, published in the Korean, in which they said they would “only follow those of Paektu bloodline and stay faithful to the very end,” proves notable.
Ju-ae is of course included in the “Paektu bloodline” of North Korean rulers stretching back to her great-grandfather, Kim Il-sung. But whether this pledge of loyalty is directed only toward Kim Jong-un remains to be seen.
This photo of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and his daughter Kim Ju-ae with photo with “contributors to successful test-fire of new-type ICBM Hwasongpho-17” ran on the front page of the Rodong Sinmun newspaper on Nov. 27, 2022. (KCNA/Yonhap)
Further clues can be seen in February 2023, during both a banquet (Feb. 7, 2023) and military parade (Feb. 8, 2023) celebrating the 75th founding anniversary of the Korean People’s Army (KPA).
In photographs published by the Rodong Sinmun of the banquet (Photo ④), Ju-ae is seated between Kim Jong-un and his wife Ri Sol-ju. Behind the Kim family, various party and military leaders, including Ri Pyong-chol, a member of the Presidium of the Politburo of the Workers’ Party of Korea, can be standing rigidly, as if they are merely there as decorations.
At the military parade, which was held at Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang, the Korean Central Television commentator proclaimed, “Our Supreme Leader’s Paektu Mountain warhorse stands at the head of the cavalry. He is followed by his beloved daughter’s favorite horse, continuing the military’s lively parade.”
The fact that Ju-ae’s white horse was directly following that of Kim — the head of the KPA and commander-in-chief of the military — along with the use of the phrase, “continuing the military’s lively parade,” is ripe with political implications.
Moreover, while showing a photograph of Ju-ae standing right next to Kim at the podium, the Rodong Sinmun used honorifics when reporting that key figures in the Workers’ Party, such as Jo Yong-won, the WPK Central Committee secretary for organizational affairs, were seated “together with the respected daughter” Ju-ae when watching the parade.
Such diction deliberately emphasizes Ju-ae’s political importance, which serves as an important basis for speculation that she will be Kim Jong-un’s successor.
Photo ④: The state-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper reported that Kim Jong-un and his daughter Kim Ju-ae took part in a commemorative banquet for the 75th founding anniversary of the KPA on Feb. 7, 2023. Behind Kim, his daughter and his wife, are the top brass of the WPK and North Korea’s military. (KCNA/Yonhap)
The Yoon Suk-yeol administration’s intelligence readings
The Yoon Suk-yeol administration in South Korea dismissed the possibility of Kim Ju-ae becoming Kim Jong-un’s successor when she first appeared in the public eye.
In briefings to the National Assembly’s Intelligence Committee, the National Intelligence Service (NIS) declared it “best to avoid the conclusion that she [Kim Ju-ae] could be Kim Jong’un’s successor” (Jan. 5, 2023) and that “At the present moment, it’s rash to conclude that Kim Ju-ae could be Kim Jong-un’s successor” (Sept. 4, 2023).
Yet it’s clear that the Yoon administration revised its stance on Kim Ju-ae in the winter of 2023. In a briefing hosted by the Seoul Foreign Correspondents' Club on Dec. 12, 2023, Unification Minister Kim Yung-ho said, “We cannot rule out the possibility of Kim Ju-ae becoming Kim Jong-un’s successor.”
In a written response to questions in an official hearing on Jan. 4, NIS Director Cho Tae-yong declared, “At present it’s likely that Kim Ju-ae will become Kim Jong-un’s successor.”
Photo ⑤: North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and daughter Kim Ju-ae watch the nighttime military parade in Pyongyang’s Kim Il-sung Square held for the 75th founding anniversary of the Korean People’s Army on Feb. 8, 2023. (KCNA/Yonhap
What the past tells us
Yet a significant number of observers think there isn’t enough evidence to support the theory that Ju-ae will become Kim Jong-un’s successor. The most irrefutable evidence lies in the age of Kim Jong-un and that of his daughter.
According to the Ministry of Unification’s online data portal on North Korea, Kim Jong-un was born on Jan. 9, 1984, which makes him 40 years old. The NIS reported to the National Assembly’s Intelligence Committee (Nov. 22, 2022) that Kim Ju-ae was born in 2013, meaning she’s still in grade school. Many observers think she’s simply too young to be included in discussions of inheriting power.
It’s worth examining the age difference alongside previous power hand-offs within the North Korean regime. Kim Il-sung, who founded North Korea and was the grandfather of Kim Jong-un, was born on April 15, 1912. His successor and Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il, was born on Feb. 16, 1942. Kim Jong-il first entered party politics in June 1964, in his early 20s. He was confirmed as his father’s successor during a general meeting of the WPK Central Committee in February 1974, when he was in his early 30s.
Kim Jong-il was officially named as the successor to his father’s throne during the sixth congress of the WPK in October 1980, when he was in his late 30s. Kim Il-sung announced the official succession as a “glorious conclusion to the fundamental problems of the future of the party and our revolution.”
Kim Jong-un, the third generation of the Kim dynasty, was given his first leadership position during the third conference of the WPK on Sept. 28, 2010, when he was in his 20s. This is when he began being identified as his father’s successor. Kim Jong-un’s photo appeared on the front page of the Rodong Sinmun on Sept. 30, 2010, the first time his appearance was publicized.
During an exclusive interview with APTN, senior WPK official Yang Hyong-sop said, “Now we also have the honor of serving young General Kim Jong-un,” essentially declaring Kim’s succession to the outside world. Up until this point, there had been no official confirmation of Kim’s role within the WPK leadership.
Considering precedent, Kim Ju-ae is too young to be officially considered for succession
Age isn’t the only problem. In reality, the succession of power within the North Korean regime strictly adheres to the Kim bloodline. Officially, however, the regime emphasizes professional qualifications over pedigree. Party ideology requires “strict obedience to leadership” and an “ideological leader” who is from “the next generation.”
Theoretically, the WPK’s leader needs to meet certain professional qualifications. Kim Jong-il entered the WPK leadership in the 1960s and steadily built his career. This is why North Korean media focused on Kim Jong-un's leadership of the military-operated Shinchang Fish Farm on July 11, 2004, after the fact. Yet there have been no state media reports of Ju-ae serving any leadership role thus far.
Photo ⑥: On Nov. 30, 2023, Kim Jong-un was joined by his daughter as he oversaw a demonstration flight by airmen during a visit to the a flight regiment of the North’s air force, coinciding with Aviation Day. Analysts note Kim Ju-ae’s front-and-center position in the photo. (KCNA/Yonhap)
A symbol of the younger generations?
There are more reasons to believe Ju-ae’s official secession is still a ways off. They can be found in her appearance at an air regiment on Nov. 30, 2023, and her attendance at a New Year’s celebration on Jan. 1, 2024. When reporting on her visit to the air regiment, the Rodong Sinmun newspaper published a photo in which Ju-ae stood front and center as the subject of the photo, her father appearing much smaller by comparison behind her. Portraying the top leader of the North Korean regime in this way is normally forbidden. Korean Central Television’s broadcast of the aforementioned New Year’s celebration broadcast Kim Jong-un kissing his daughter on the cheek, with first lady Ri Sol-ju and Premier Kim Tok-hun smiling and applauding beside them.
With Ju-ae taking front and center in an official photograph and being shown as the subject of her father’s adoration on camera, it may look at first glance like the state shifting its attention from Kim Jong-un to his daughter. But focusing on the official successor over the incumbent leader is a major no-no in North Korean political custom. Moreover, the country’s top leader has never publicly shown such affection to his successor after the succession has been officially confirmed. The reason Kim Jong-un shows such affection to his daughter on camera, some say, is because she has not yet been appointed or selected for any political role.
Former senior officials in the South Korean government view Kim Jong-un’s public displays of affection for his daughter as a symbolic salute to North Korea’s future generations.
Photo ⑦: While attending a New Year’s event on Jan. 1 at Rungrado 1st of May Stadium in Pyongyang, Kim Jong-un was caught on camera giving his daughter a kiss on the cheek. (still from KCNA/Yonhap)
Is there any meaning behind Kim Jong-un adoring his daughter on camera?
A former South Korean official with experience in North Korean affairs in both the Blue House and the NIS reached the following conclusion: “There is no way to definitively conclude whether or not Kim Ju-ae has been named as Kim Jong-un’s successor. However, throughout Korea’s history, princes have undergone a sort of ‘grooming phase’ before ascending to the throne. It could be said that Kim Ju-ae is currently in that phase, being educated in various matters of the state. Yet not all princes became kings. Currently, the facts are not sufficient to conclude that Kim Ju-ae has been selected by the state to succeed her father.”
“The key takeaway in Kim Jong-un’s public affection for his daughter,” the former official continued, “is not the issue of succession.”
“Let me ask you this,” the official said. “What are the chances that Kim Jong-un is presenting his young, innocent daughter as the face of the North Korean regime while preparing to launch a full-scale war by recklessly attacking us first?”
A former diplomat noted the significance of Ju-ae’s first public appearance. “Kim Jong-un took his daughter to the test launch of the Hwasong-17 missile on Nov. 18, 2022. This could have been a message that North Korea’s nuclear capacity secures North Korea’s future generations. In short, it could have been a political message that nuclear weapons are a defensive strategy, not an offensive one,” they said.
Regardless of Ju-ae’s future role in the WPK, the appearance of a 10-year-old girl by Kim Jong-un’s side as he attends various political and military events is indeed strange — even uncanny. It’s difficult to dismiss her presence as some kind of political or diplomatic message to the outside world.
By Lee Je-hun, senior staff writer
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