February 13, 2023
SEOUL – North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, placed his young daughter, Kim Ju-ae, front and center at high-profile events last week, rekindling the debate on whether North Korea carves out a path to position Ju-ae as Kim’s heir apparent.
Some experts said North Korea has signaled that Ju-ae has been internally decided as the next leader, while others point out Ju-ae has been used as a propaganda vehicle to send a message that nuclear weapons can protect the safety of the younger generations and highlight the perpetuity of the Kim dynasty.
Ju-ae — who is believed to be 10 years old and the leader’s second-born daughter — accompanied her father Wednesday on his visit to a large-scale military parade, as well as to the lodging of the Korean People’s Army’s general officers and a lavish banquet Tuesday to mark the 75th anniversary of the foundation of the Korean People’s Army on Feb. 8.
The state-run Korean Central Television on Thursday aired a two-hour video of the nighttime military parade, where Ju-ae was seen walking on a red carpet holding her father’s hand while his wife Ri Sol-ju followed them.
Ju-ae also touched her father’s cheek and whispered to him, watching the large-scale military parade from a balcony. The footage also featured Ju-ae’s solo appearance several times. The Rodong Sinmun, an organ of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, also unprecedentedly released an individual photo of Ju-ae at the event.
Kim Ju-ae was also in the center of the group photographs taken with her father, mother and high-ranking military officials at the banquet. The photo was released Wednesday on the front page of the internally most widely circulated Rodong Sinmun.
North Korean state media labeled her as Kim Jong-un’s “respected daughter” and “beloved daughter.”
Kim’s daughter has made public appearances since her debut at the site of the launch of the Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile in mid-November.
But North Korean media reports of unprecedentedly and strikingly highlighting the presence of Ju-ae have raised the perennial question: Has North Korea sought to position Ju-ae as Kim Jong-un’s heir and the fourth-generation leader of the deeply patriarchal country?
In a nutshell, Seoul-based North Korea experts are divided on North Korea’s intent behind the frequent public appearances of the leader’s daughter. But there are three most likely reasons.
I. New propaganda vehicle
Hong Min, director of the North Korean Research Division at the government-funded Korea Institute for National Unification, pointed out that young daughter Ju-ae has been used as a propaganda vehicle to send a message that the country’s nuclear weapons and missiles can protect present and future generations.
Ju-ae has accompanied her father on five different occasions since November, including the Hwasong-17 launch, group photographs with officials and scientists to celebrate the launch, the visit to depots of KN-23 and Hwasong-12 missiles, and last week’s military banquet and parade. The publicly reported events were all related to North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.
“North Korea seeks to deliver the message that advanced nuclear weapons can secure the safety of future generations by parlaying Kim Ju-ae — who represents future generations — into (propaganda),” Hong said.
“Against that backdrop, North Korea intends to take advantage of Kim Ju-ae’s symbolism to send the message by making her attend military events such as the roll-out and production facilities of statistically important weapons.”
Hong pointed out that Ju-ae’s appearance is part of propaganda strategy that North Korea has refined and shifted since last year to sophisticatedly indoctrinate the idea that its nuclear buildup aims to guarantee the safety of people and younger generations in light of its right to self-defense.
Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said that North Korea would continue propaganda focusing on Kim Ju-ae when it comes to military reinforcement.
Cheong Seong-chang, director of the Center for East Asian Cooperation at the Sejong Institute, said the beginning of building the personality cult surrounding Kim Ju-ae in media reports suggested that she “has been internally decided as the successor although she has not yet gained the official status of the successor.”
Kim Jong-un was selected as the later leader Kim Jong-il’s successor in 1992 when he was 8 years old, but he was officially confirmed as the country’s next leader in 2008, only after Kim Jong-il suffered a life-threatening stroke and underwent surgery.
“But Kim Jong-un would see that the advantages of expeditiously internally deciding her daughter as the successor and making it public would outweigh the losses,” Cheong said.
Kim Jong-un’s leadership style contrasts with that of his father, who did not deliver public speeches or appear with his wife. That, as well as his experience of a hasty succession of power after his father’s sudden death could lead him to opt for the early pronouncement. His father Kim Jong-il ruled the country until he died in 2011.
“Kim Jong-un would believe that the more people know that Kim Ju-ae has been appointed as the successor, the less likely it is for there to be baseless speculations about the succession plan,” Cheong said. “If Kim Ju-ae begins attending important political events and mastering leadership at a young age, it will enable her to take power more stably even if Kim Jong-un dies suddenly, as his father did.”
III. Perpetual Paektu bloodline
Cha Du-hyeogn, a principal fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said it was premature to conclude that North Korea has sought to position Kim’s daughter as his successor, though no one can rule out the possibility.
“It is very crucial to look into what context she has made appearances,” Cha told The Korea Herald, adding that Pyongyang had begun succession campaigns of Kim Jong-un in earnest after rumors of Kim Jong-il’s illness spread out, for instance.
Cha explained that a few signs should be detected in advance to see Kim Ju-ae as Kim Jong-un’s apparent heir. But there have been no such signs from state media reports.
The possible indications include North Korean state media’s use of modifiers such as “respected and noble” solely for Ju-ae even though she is identified by media concurrently with Kim Jong-un’s other children including his firstborn son.
Other clear signs would be the beginning of a cult of personality surrounding Ju-ae as well as her mother Ri Sol-ju’s gesture of treating Ju-ae as her superior, not her daughter.
For now, Cha underscored the most likely explanation is that North Korea intends to play up to Ju-ae as the symbol of the eternal, sacred Mount Paektu bloodline, which refers to the Kim dynasty, to call for unwavering allegiance from the power elite and the people. Ju-ae might be the most analogous child to Kim Jong-un in appearance and therefore has been selected as the most suitable child for the purpose of propaganda.
“Kim seeks to externally show off his family. In that sense, the disclosure of his daughter rather aims to demonstrate the perpetuity and sacrosanctity of the Mount Paektu bloodline. That is, the Mount Paektu bloodline’s ruling of the North Korean power elite and people, will continue even after the death of Kim Jong-un,” Cha said.
“Kim, therefore, seeks to deliver the message to the power elite and people that they must be loyal to the Mount Paektu bloodline, which will continue to last through the next generation, and there must be no challenge against his family.”