December 13, 2023
SEOUL – Just over a year ago, the daughter of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made her first public appearance, walking hand in hand with her father as they inspected the launch of the intercontinental ballistic missile Hwasong-17.
The cherubic Kim Ju Ae, said to be 10 or 11 in 2023, has made a total of 19 public appearances since November 2022.
She is always seen beside her father, with the North Korean media referring to her as “Beloved Child” or “Respected Child”.
While South Korean officials initially doubted that she could be heir apparent to Mr Kim, they are now having a rethink.
In March 2023, lawmaker Yoo Sang-bum told local media after a closed-door briefing by the National Intelligence Service (NIS) that the agency believed Mr Kim, said to be 39 in 2023, was too young and healthy to designate a successor so early.
However, on Dec 3, NIS chief Cho Tae-yong said on a television programme that he believes Kim Ju Ae to be the heir apparent.
Even South Korea’s Unification Ministry – which had shared the agency’s earlier scepticism – now says that it sees signs that point to Mr Kim’s daughter being next in line. At a foreign media event on Dec 12, Unification Minister Kim Yung-ho noted the “escalating level of protocol” accorded to the girl in her recent appearances.
He said: “You can see from state media images that when she visited the Naval Command in August and then the Air Force Command on Nov 30, the commanders and officers were all saluting her.”
Mr Kim Yung-ho also cited North Korea’s Founding Day military parade on Sept 9, when North Korean military leader Park Jong Chon, a close associate of Mr Kim, was seen kneeling and whispering into Ju Ae’s ears.
“If we look at these things, we cannot rule out the possibility of Ju Ae’s succession to power given that they are putting her on the main stage so early. We will need to keep a close watch on this.”
In recent months, Mr Kim’s daughter has gained greater prominence. Following the successful launch of North Korea’s first spy satellite on Nov 21, the “Noble Child” was promoted to “Morning Star General”.
The title was first used to refer to her great-grandfather Kim Il Sung, founder of the North Korean regime, and later her father, before he ascended to power in 2011 in his 20s.
In line with her new title, Ju Ae no longer sports the girlish ponytail from a year before, but now mimics the more mature hairdo of her mother Ri Sol Ju.
Most notably, a photo of her released on Dec 1 shows Ju Ae in the foreground for the first time, while her father stands behind her in matching leather jackets and sunglasses during a visit to the North Korean air force headquarters.
Mr Kim Yung-ho believes that early succession planning is the regime’s attempt to secure its stability.
He said North Korea is facing great difficulties internally, adding that it is withdrawing embassies due to budget constraints and facing a chronic shortage of food.
He also noted that the North Koreans are watching K-dramas and listening to K-pop.
“With the Korean Wave culture spreading in North Korea, we are seeing signs that North Koreans are starting to move away from their loyalty to the regime. With this fourth succession, the regime is trying to strengthen its internal solidarity.”
Some analysts who had expressed doubts about Ju Ae being lined up as Mr Kim’s successor point to the possibility of her being a decoy while Mr Kim grooms his son.
Observers had believed Ju Ae to be the second of Mr Kim’s three children, with the eldest being a boy.
But doubts have also been cast recently on whether Mr Kim’s eldest child is actually a boy and therefore the natural heir to the patriarchal regime.
Mr Kim has never been seen with his other children.
In May, Radio Free Asia quoted Mr Kim’s schoolmate Joao Micaelo from his Swiss boarding school as saying that he has not heard Mr Kim speak of any other of his children besides Ju Ae.
Mr Kim Yung-ho said at the event at Korea Press Centre in Seoul that his ministry is still “continuing efforts to confirm” if Mr Kim has a son or not.
Asked by The Straits Times for his views on whether the patriarchal North Korean regime would appoint a female successor, Mr Kim Yung-ho smiled and said this was a difficult question.
He said: “Confucian traditions remain in North Korean society. They still have a preference for boys over daughters. But will it influence the succession of the leadership? I think this is the biggest issue at hand.
“My personal view is that the impact on such decisions will be minimal.”