January 22, 2024
SINGAPORE – Kim Ju Ae made her first public appearance in November 2022 during a missile launch. At that time, she wore a puffy coat and red flat shoes, and sported a schoolgirl’s fringe.
But the daughter of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, said to be either 10 or 11 years old in 2024, has taken on a more mature look since then.
Her appearance at North Korea’s New Year celebrations on Dec 31 caused quite a stir, as she strutted down the red carpet holding her father’s arm, clad in a black leather jacket with a wide fur collar, with her hair in a half-up do, the favoured hairstyle of her mother Ri Sol Ju and her aunt Kim Yo Jong.
The more mature look was completed with high heels estimated to be 7cm high, which South Korean media zoomed in on, noting that the shoes were “high enough for adult women to wear”.
A week later, Ju Ae was seen accompanying her father to inspect a newly built chicken factory, her first non-military-related appearance. This time, she added waves to her hair.
Observers say the increasing frequency of Ju Ae’s public appearances, along with the rapid transformation to a more womanly image, is likely part of a grand propaganda campaign engineered by her aunt who heads the Propaganda and Agitation Department.
Professor Yang Moo-jin, president of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, told The Straits Times that there is a multifaceted agenda behind Ju Ae’s public exposure.
Mr Kim gets to show off his softer side as an affectionate father, while his wife completes the picture of a strong family bond.
From the perspective of the sole ruling Workers’ Party of North Korea and the North Korean military, Mr Kim is showing that he is securing the future of his country through nuclear capabilities, as well as Ju Ae, who represents the fourth generation of the powerful Baekdu lineage.
North Koreans refer to the three generations of Kims who have ruled North Korea since 1948 as the Baekdu bloodline, named after the mountain located at the northernmost point of the Korean peninsula and regarded as the spiritual home of the Korean race.
Prof Yang said: “It seems that Ju Ae is being utilised not only as a successor, but also as a tool in the propaganda activities of her father, mother, the party and the military. The orchestrator of this utilisation is likely her aunt Yo Jong.”
Dr Bruce Bennett, a senior defence analyst at US think-tank Rand Corporation, thinks that it could also be the Kims’ attempt to soften the ground for North Koreans – a deeply patriarchal society – to accept a female successor in the future.
“I think Kim, from the beginning, recognised that having a woman take his place as a successor was going to be very hard, that the military wasn’t going to live with that. So from several years ago, he started making his sister take a really hard line, (changing her) into the kind of person who could rule the North Korean military.
“As for his daughter, he has taken her around to military facilities. So I think he is keeping his options open.”
Referring to the displays of affection between Mr Kim and Ju Ae, he said: “While (Ms Kim Yo Jong) is the big bad wolf of North Korea, Kim is offering a softer side with his daughter.”
The North Korean leader was shown hugging and planting a kiss on Ju Ae’s cheek during the New Year’s celebration, days before threatening to annihilate South Korea if provoked.
And if the intention is indeed to signal that Ju Ae will be the next supreme leader, then it makes sense to build a more mature image for her, said Dr Lee Sung Yoon, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholars.
“It may very well be the case that she has been determined internally as the heir apparent. But of course, it’s a bit premature to release that to the world. It would invite mockery.”
And despite South Korea’s National Intelligence Service acknowledging recently that Ju Ae appears to be Mr Kim’s “most likely successor”, based on analyses of her public activities and the level of respect seen accorded to her, Dr Lee remains sceptical.
“Yes, she’s cute and seems to have grown physically a bit taller over the past year, but she’s still a little girl. What can a little prepubescent 11-year-old do when she receives a foreign delegation? If Kim were to die today, can she emerge as the supreme leader?”
Professor Leif-Eric Easley from Ewha Womans University in Seoul shared a similar view. “Kim has ostentatiously elevated the status of his daughter, having her accompany him to high-profile events in what looks like an apprenticeship role. The variety of her appearances has expanded, and the formality of protocol, language and attire for her has increased.
“However, we aren’t sure about her name or age, much less whether she is Kim’s chosen successor. South Korean intelligence may consider her the most likely successor among known potential candidates, but that still doesn’t mean it’s likely she will inherit the regime.”
He added: “Pyongyang’s propaganda department could be planning decades ahead, but it’s probably more focused on the current leader’s brand image while putting up smokescreens to obfuscate power dynamics in North Korean politics.”
What might the future hold for Ms Kim Yo Jong?
The feisty youngest child of the late Kim Jong Il is said to be 36 in 2024. She was widely seen as the de facto deputy to her elder brother and was tipped as successor before the appearance of Ju Ae.
Known for her strong diatribes, Ms Kim was by her brother’s side when he visited Russia and met President Vladimir Putin last September.
In her Jan 2 New Year message to South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, she described him as “an honest and foolish person who reveals his hostility towards others without hesitation”, while referring to his predecessor Moon Jae-in as “an ugly person with honey on his mouth and a sword in his heart”.
Dr Lee, who authored the book, The Sister: North Korea’s Kim Yo Jong, The Most Dangerous Woman In The World, released last June, believes that she is a strong contender. “It’s entirely conceivable that for now, the little girl is the heir apparent. When she reaches adulthood, that’s mature enough to be a leader; very young, but still not a child,” he said.
“But for the next 15 years or so, I see only one candidate, the viable Baekdu bloodline member to be able to fill in in case Kim is incapacitated or permanently gone, and that’s Kim Yo Jong.”