February 28, 2023
SEOUL – The South Korean unification minister on Monday said it is too early to conclude that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s daughter, Kim Ju-ae, has been appointed as the country’s next leader.
But Unification Minister Kwon Young-se braced for the possibility of North Korea pursuing to position Kim Ju-ae as Kim Jong-un’s heir apparent in an interview with South Korean radio broadcaster CBS. Kwon answered that she is in a “gray zone” when asked whether he classifies her as a potential heir.
“North Korea definitely seeks a fourth-generation hereditary succession,” Kwon said. “But it would be right to keep an eye on whether Kim Ju-ae has been selected as the fourth-generation successor.”
Kwon’s assessment came after Kim Ju-ae’s first attendance at an economic event, which rekindled debate as to whether she has been chosen as the heir apparent.
Kim Ju-ae participated in a groundbreaking ceremony for a residential street in the Sopho area in the North Korean capital Pyongyang. She dug into the soil right next to her father on Saturday, North Korean state media reported the following day.
Kim Ju-ae has previously accompanied her father and the country’s leader Kim Jong-un to public events related to North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, including the Hwasong-17 launch and depots of KN-23 and Hwasong-12 missiles last year. She attended a lavish banquet and military parade marking the 75th anniversary of the foundation of the Korean People’s Army on Feb. 8 this year as well.
But Kim Ju-ae has recently widened her sphere of public activities into nonmilitary events, starting with her attendance at sports events staged on Feb. 17 to celebrate the anniversary of the birth of the late former leader Kim Jong-il.
Kwon pointed out that her public appearances — especially at the groundbreaking ceremony — are “not par for the course.”
“North Korea is a more patriarchal, male-dominated society than ours,” Kwon said. “So I have doubts over whether she can lead the North Korean system centered on the military even if North Korea begins to groom her as the country’s successor.”
The South Korean unification minister added that South Korea has not obtained definite evidence that the North Korean leader’s firstborn child is a son, although it has detected related signs. The lack of certain information has made it difficult for South Korea to conclude the implications of Kim Ju-ae’s frequent public appearances.
Kwon said South Korea would focus on the possibility that Kim Ju-ae is being used for propaganda purposes if Kim Jong-un’s firstborn child was a son.
South Korea for now can only confirm that Kim Ju-ae is the eldest of the leader’s two daughters, the unification minister added.
The South Korean spy agency only recently confirmed that the child seen in public is Kim Ju-ae, born in 2013, in a closed-door briefing to the parliamentary intelligence committee in November 2022, adding that she is Kim Jong-un’s second child.
In 2017, the National Intelligence Service confirmed that Kim Jong-un has three children, including the eldest son born in 2010. But the NIS has not publicly acknowledged the presence of the eldest son since Kim Ju-ae made her public debut.
Seoul-based experts have been divided on whether Kim Ju-ae’s frequent public activities indicate Pyongyang’s intent to groom her to be the country’s next leader.
Cheong Seong-chang, director of the Center for East Asian Cooperation at the Sejong Institute, said her attendance at the intercontinental ballistic missile launch and groundbreaking ceremony suggest she has been “internally appointed as the successor.”
But Hong Min, director of the North Korean Research Division at the South Korean state-funded Korea Institute for National Unification, pointed out that Kim Ju-ae’s attendance at the groundbreaking ceremony was a publicity tool aimed at the North Korean youth. North Korean state media on Sunday reported that around 100,000 young people had volunteered to build around 4,100 houses in the Sopho area.
“North Korea has utilized Kim Ju-ae symbolically for events that bring the theme of youth to the forefront and highlight construction by future generations,” Hong said.
“North Korea will seek to draw sympathy and solidarity from future generations born after 2010 by continuously and publicly exposing the process of Kim Ju-ae’s coming of age,” he added.