The young girl, who South Korean authorities believe is named Ju Ae and about nine years old, has suddenly been featured in North Korean state media alongside her all-powerful father. She most recently accompanied Kim on a photo op to celebrate the successful launch of the country’s most powerful ballistic missile — prompting “stormy cheers of ‘Hurrah!’,” according to a Korean Central News Agency dispatch published Sunday.
Despite all the mystery, the events sent clear signals to both the North Korean public and the wider world: First, the Kim regime is here to stay. Second, the ruling family won’t be bargaining away its nuclear arsenal any time soon.
Both points were driven home when Kim brought his daughter along to observe the launch a new intercontinental ballistic missile believed capable of carrying multiple nuclear warheads anywhere on the US mainland. Photos released by state media included a shot of Kim looking down on his child with the rocket looming behind them.
The debut was remarkable on several levels. While parading heirs before the public has been a feature of hereditary monarchies the world over, the Kim family has been far more reluctant to reveal potential successors during its almost 75 years in power.
Kim Jong Un didn’t make his official debut until he was around 26. Before Ju Ae’s first appearance in state media on Nov. 19, North Korea hadn’t even acknowledged Kim had children. It’s still not known whether the regime views his “precious child” as Kim’s heir, or whether that status would belong to the older brother she’s rumored to have.
“The optics of Kim and his daughter observing the launch together seem to underscore recent messaging that the nuclear program is no longer conditional, and now involves the next generation as part of this success,” said Jenny Town, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center in Washington. In September, Kim told North Korean lawmakers he would “never give up” his nuclear weapons while pushing through a law that would allow “automatic” strikes if his leadership was threatened.
Since taking power a decade ago at 27, Kim has defied predictions that his regime would falter. Instead, he boasts an increasingly diverse stockpile of weapons designed to target the US and its allies in Japan and South Korea. The reports featuring Kim’s daughter show he also has a possible heir to bequeath them to.
“It is the truth taught by history that only when we become the strongest, not the weak, in the present world where the strength in showdown just decides victory, can we defend the present and future of the country and nation,” KCNA quoted Kim as saying Sunday.
The NIS believed Kim may have wanted to assure people that he is responsible for the “security of the future generation,” South Korean lawmaker Yoo Sang-bum told reporters last week after a closed-door briefing with the National Intelligence Service. He added that agency believes that Ju Ae is the second of three children between Kim and his wife, Ri Sol Ju.
“Under the North Korean regime, the position of Kim’s children can be compared to that of prince or princess in a dynastic system,” said Cheong Seong-Chang, director of the Center for North Korean Studies at the Sejong Institute outside of Seoul.
North Korea’s ability to deliver a nuclear strike on the US and its allies in Asia has grown under Kim Jong Un to the point where there are calls to declare Pyongyang a nuclear weapons state and revamp a decades-old US policy of never allowing that to happen, while seeking the complete, verifiable and irreversible end of its atomic arsenal.
Kim has ignored the US’s calls to return to nuclear disarmament talks now stalled for more than three years.
Ju Ae’s debut is only the latest example of Kim’s willingness to share the spotlight with prominent women. Besides frequent appearances with his wife, he has made his sister, Kim Yo Jong, the face of the regime’s response to the US and South Korea. He also recently appointed, Choe Son Hui, to be the country’s first female foreign minister.
Still, it’s too early to say whether Kim Jong Un intends to make Ju Ae his formal heir. Such a move would likely face resistance from the country’s male-dominated political elite, said Rachel Minyoung Lee, a regional issues manager at the Vienna-based Open Nuclear Network.
“While Kim himself may be ready to appoint a female successor, those around him may not be, and he cannot altogether ignore the opinions of the country’s top-ranking leadership,” said Lee, who previously worked as an open source analyst for the CIA. “North Korea is a very traditional and conservative society, and Kim may not be confident that a female successor could navigate a male-dominant party, government, and military without jeopardizing regime security.”