Rival heir to North Korea’s Kim Ju-ae unlikely to appear: Unification minister

With Ju-ae not formally designated as the regime's fourth-generation successor, speculation is circling regarding the existence of any additional heirs.

Ji Da-gyum

Ji Da-gyum

The Korea Herald


South Korean Unification Minister Kim Yung-ho speaks during an exclusive interview with The Korea Herald on Friday at his office in Seoul, where framed calligraphy of President Yoon Suk Yeol's mantra. PHOTO: THE KOREA HERALD

February 29, 2024

SEOUL – Another heir emerging for North Korea besides Kim Jong-un’s publicly promoted preteen daughter Ju-ae is unlikely because it would spark confusion within the isolated totalitarian society, according to South Korea’s unification minister.

During an exclusive 90-minute interview with The Korea Herald on Feb. 23, Unification Minister Kim Yung-ho underscored the “considerable internal instability” brewing within North Korea, a situation catalyzing the early debut of Ju-ae as candidate for the fourth generation of hereditary power succession there.

The scholar-turned-minister said there has been a rising tide of internal instability driven by the expanding influence of market forces and the influx of external information, notably South Korean TV dramas. The trend starkly contrasts with the Kim regime’s tight control over information and centrally planned economy, both of which serve to maintain its grip on power through totalitarian dictatorship.

With Ju-ae not formally designated as the regime’s fourth-generation successor, speculation is circling regarding the existence of any additional heirs, concurrently igniting heightened curiosity about the possible existence of sons within the lineage of the North Korean leader.

However, the minister downplayed the possibility of any other heir emerging aside from Ju-ae.

“Some suggest that there is a possibility of another individual being put forward instead of Kim Ju-ae. However, such a scenario would rather lead to increased confusion, given the extent to which Kim Ju-ae has been promoted,” he said.

The minister explained that a female leader could effectively govern North Korea, noting that the country’s governance structure, labeled as a “totalitarian dictatorship,” diverges from Korean Confucianism’s traditionally male-centered, patriarchal values.

“While Confucianism could potentially exert influence on society, it seems that the dictatorship’s structure itself will shape decisions like power succession. Thus, from this viewpoint, even if (the heir is) a daughter or a woman, a power transition could happen whenever deemed necessary.”

Kim Ju-ae has appeared publicly 26 times as of Feb. 22 since her public debut at the launch site of the Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile in Nov. 2022.

The minister pointed to a gradual increase in the level of courtesy shown towards her since her initial appearance, notably demonstrated by military commanders saluting her.

“We therefore cannot exclude the possibility of Kim Ju-ae becoming the successor,” he said.

The minister explained that North Korean Marshal Pak Jong-chon, the second-ranking military official, knelt to Ju-ae during a military parade held in central Pyongyang in September last year to commemorate the 75th anniversary of North Korea’s foundation.

The scene, publicly broadcast by the state-run Korean Central Television, evoked memories of the then-Minister of the People’s Armed Forces O Jin-u kneeling to the then-appointed heir Kim Jong-il.

The minister highlighted the rarity of Ju-ae being photographed standing in front of her father, describing it as “quite unprecedented.” State media featured a photo of Ju-ae, dressed in attire resembling her father’s, standing prominently before him during their visit to the Air Force Regiment of the 1st Division last November.

The minister also noted that “institutional preparations for power succession are already underway.”

During the eighth party congress in January 2021, North Korea amended its party rules to establish the position of first secretary of the Party Central Committee and included the phrase, “The first secretary of the Party Central Committee is the representative of the general secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea.”

The unification minister suggested that Kim Yo-jong, the sister and mouthpiece of the North Korean leader, who also holds the position of vice director of the Propaganda and Agitation Department of the Party Central Committee, will “have to face a diminished role.”

Ju-ae’s early rise

The unification minister evaluated that internal instability triggered Ju-ae’s early debut on the public scene.

“As the North Korean regime grapples with considerable internal instability, it is visualizing its succession plans.”

The minister referenced the Unification Ministry’s recently published 280-page report, containing a comprehensive analysis of economic and social conditions in North Korea based on in-depth interviews with 6,351 North Korean defectors spanning from 2013 to 2020.

The report, released in February as the ministry’s primary task to shed light on the realities of North Korea, reveals the expansion of marketization within the country amid the stagnation of its centrally planned economy.

The report also disclosed the collapse of the public distribution system and the activation of the informal economy, leading to the rampant spread of corruption across North Korean society. It emphasizes the concerning increase of bribery under the Kim Jong-un regime.

Furthermore, the report underscores the growing discontent among North Koreans regarding the hereditary succession of the country’s leadership and the widespread negative public assessment of the performance of Kim Jong-un as a political leader.

“When viewed as a whole, it seems that North Korea is experiencing changes from the grassroots level, as we hope,” the minister said.

The minister also reiterated that “From a universal perspective, if marketization occurs, it seems inevitable that conflicts will eventually arise between the power of the market and the power of authority in North Korea.”

Dilemma of hereditary dictatorship

Though North Korea is transitioning to a fourth-generation leadership, the Kim regime will continue to grapple with instability, as it faces “the dilemma of hereditary dictatorship” which is incapable of reform and openness, he said.

The minister explained that Kim Jong-un cannot criticize the policies of his grandfather and founder of North Korea, Kim Il-sung, or his father, Kim Jong-il, as he inherited power from them, drawing a stark contrast from the Chinese transition of power.

Chinese communist leader Deng Xiaoping openly criticized his predecessor Mao Zedong and spearheaded economic reform in 1978. Similarly, Vietnam’s leaders were able to pursue the Doi Moi economic reform policy in 1986 after addressing the shortcomings of previous leaders.

“Therefore, if trapped in this dilemma, the economy will inevitably stagnate. Generally speaking, if a country seeks to enhance and sustain military power, it should be supported by economic strength,” he said, questioning the sustainability of its leadership.

North Korea directs a substantial portion of its resources, potentially surpassing 50 percent of its gross domestic product, towards nuclear and missile buildup.

The Kim dynasty has embraced another inherent instability.

“The crux of maintaining a political system lies in democratically and stably institutionalizing the succession of supreme power. Hence, when viewed through this lens, North Korea can be assessed as being in a state of chronic instability.”

When questioned about the potential for coups in North Korea, the minister remarked, “While predicting North Korea’s internal dynamics precisely is challenging, if the situation within the country is deteriorating, we cannot rule out the possibility of differences of opinion emerging within the power class.”

Why has hostility increased?

On Pyongyang designating Seoul as its “primary foe” in January, the minister said internal instability seems to be one of the reasons for the Kim regime pursuing more aggressive policy.

“In terms of the internal situation in North Korea, the economic difficulties and food shortages are exceedingly severe. It seems that dissent in public sentiment is emerging within North Korea,” the minister said.

During the enlarged meeting of the political bureau of the Party Central Committee held in January, Kim Jong-un openly acknowledged the failure to adequately provide even basic necessities to the people in the provinces as a “grave political issue” that the party and government can never overlook.

“In light of the remark, the severity of the economic crisis within North Korea has reached a juncture, prompting attempts to redirect these internal crises outward. This seems to serve one specific purpose,” the minister explained.

A significant increase in the popularity of South Korea’s Hallyu within North Korea seems to have made the Kim regime implement policy shifts, as the spread of cultural content may foster “admiration for South Korean society.”

“Externally, there appears to be an objective to bolster North Korea’s presence ahead of the upcoming US presidential election,” he said.

The minister elucidated that there is also a deliberate emphasis on hostility towards South Korea to reaffirm the legitimacy of North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear development. Additionally, North Korea appears to be seeking justification for a potential nuclear attack on South Korea.

Increased provocations

The unification minister cautioned against the internal repercussions of Kim Jong-un’s endeavors to nullify the accomplishments of his predecessors, Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, in inter-Korean relations.

These efforts include the demolition of the Monument to the Three Charters for National Reunification, established in central Pyongyang in 2001 during the tenure of the late leader Kim Jong-il.

The minister noted that Kim Jong-un “has dismantled the foundation for his own succession by himself.”

“There is also the possibility that such changes may lead to ideological confusion and a vacuum within North Korea. We must closely monitor the potential ramifications of abrupt shifts in policies,” he said.

“If internal conflicts arise, there is a strong likelihood of military provocations to cover them up, and escalating statements or provocations regarding the NLL appear to be connected to these internal issues.”

There is a significant likelihood of North Korea engaging in military provocations ahead of the legislative elections scheduled for April 10 in South Korea, but the possibility of North Korea waging an all-out war would be “extremely difficult.”

“Nevertheless, the probability of a local military provocation remains very high. The likelihood of cyber or other hybrid provocations is also significant,” the minister forecast.

“The great concern is the potential escalation into war due to miscalculation.”

The minister emphasized that South Korea should strengthen its deterrence capabilities to deter North Korea’s military provocations, highlighting the importance of “peace through strength and peace through deterrence.”

“The appropriate response to any threat from North Korea is to adopt a robust deterrence policy. Only then can peace on the Korean Peninsula be upheld. This is why the government is pursuing the 3D policy.”

The 3D policy encompasses deterrence, emphasizing the robustness of military capabilities to deter North Korean threats; dissuasion, discouraging North Korea’s pursuit of missile and nuclear advancements; and dialogue aimed at achieving denuclearization.

Shift in unification policy

When asked about whether the precondition for peaceful unification is the collapse of the North Korean regime, the minister emphasized the significance of “empowering” the North Korean people.

The Yoon government aims for peaceful unification grounded in the principles of freedom and democracy, as stipulated in Article 4 of South Korea’s Constitution.

“The process of unification aims to enhance the autonomy and self-determination of North Korean citizens. It is imperative to make significant efforts to create conditions where North Korean citizens can make decisions for themselves,” the minister said.

“Ultimately, it seems that the foundation for unification will be laid by promoting North Korean citizens’ freedom and human rights.”

The unification minister emphasized that “facilitating the influx of external information into North Korea is currently paramount” to that end.

“It’s akin to a chick hatching from an egg; it requires pecking from the inside as well as delicate tapping from the outside. Ultimately, as the shell cracks, allowing the chick to emerge, efforts from the international community and nongovernmental organizations to increase the flow of information into North Korea must be intensified.”

The Unification Ministry’s other main focus is addressing human rights abuses and violations by the Kim Jong-un regime. It has been dedicated to raising awareness of the matter among South Koreans and the international community.

Two feasible paths forward

In his New Year’s speech, the unification minister likened North Korea to a “windup toy car,” drawing on a metaphor originally coined by George F. Kennan, a prominent US diplomat and historian known for formulating the policy of containing the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

In 1947, Kennan stated, “The whole Soviet governmental machine … moves inexorably along the prescribed path, like a persistent toy automobile wound up and headed in a given direction, stopping only when it meets with some unanswerable force.”

The minister drew parallels between Kennan’s containment strategy and the Yoon Suk Yeol government’s 3D policy, characterizing them as “highly similar.”

According to the minister, Kennan advocated for containment to halt the Soviet Union’s expansion, foreseeing that sustained containment efforts would eventually force the Soviet Union to halt, akin to stopping a clockwork mechanism by leaving it alone until it loses steam.

“North Korea is winding up a perilous toy car, propelling it forward through the development of nuclear weapons and missiles,” the minister said.

To address this challenge, South Korea must strengthen its military deterrence, enhance coordination with the US and Japan, and employ dissuasion strategies to curb North Korea’s nuclear and missile advancements.

Asked about the Kim regime’s sustainability, he suggested that North Korea faces two options: Return to dialogue or proceed down a path of collapse similar to the Soviet Union.

“(North Korea) will eventually come forward to the dialogue or come to a halt once it has completely unwound. It’s a matter of one outcome or the other.”

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