The photograph shows a happy family. After a thirty-five-day public absence, the corpulent Kim Jong-un was pictured last week with his wife Ri Sol-ju, and sitting between them their daughter, Kim Ju-ae, as they dine in the presence of North Korean military officers weighed down with medals.
Is Kim Jong-un’s daughter being lined up to take over North Korea? The photograph has only heightened speculation that the stage is now being set for her to be leader, as the fourth generation of Kim to rule the country. Last week North Korean state media gave Kim Ju-ae the honorific of “respected” when writing about the event, an adjective which had previously been bestowed upon leaders of the DPRK and their spouses.
The occasion for the photograph was the seventy-fifth anniversary of the founding of the Korean People’s Army, North Korea’s military force, which was established in 1948. A military banquet preceded a lavish parade.
These events are frequently used as an opportunity to display the North’s latest conventional and nuclear weaponry. This year’s parade predictably saw a cornucopia of missiles on show. One of the Intercontinental ballistic missiles featured was the Hwasong-17 — the world’s largest road-mobile liquid-fueled ICBM, first unveiled in October 2020 — which graced Kim Il-sung Square in Pyongyang. State media also appeared to show a new design of solid-fuel ICBM which, if this is the case, would be a technological breakthrough for Pyongyang. With fewer moving parts, solid-fuel missiles launch at faster speeds and are harder to detect than their liquid-fuel counterparts. Expanding the technological scope and sophistication of North Korea’s weaponry has been one of Kim Jong-un’s central aims, as he made clear when he outlined his five-year shopping list of new and expanded weaponry at the eighth Workers’ Party Congress in January 2021.
It is not the first but the fifth time that Kim Jong-un’s daughter has appeared in public. Yet Wednesday was no ordinary “bring your daughter to work” day. Missiles mean a lot to Kim Jong-un and his family. At Wednesday’s banquet, eagle-eyed observers noted how Kim Jong-un’s wife, Ri Sol-ju, sported a pendant of the Hwasong-17. Their daughter followed protocol, cheering as the missiles went past.
The second child of Kim Jong-un, Ju-ae is reportedly only nine or ten years old. Years before the world had even seen her, the infamous former US basketball player, Dennis Rodman — a confidant of the North Korean leader — leaked Ju-ae’s name to the international press. Whilst it is quite possible that she may be groomed as heir apparent, only time will tell. Indeed, North Korean state media has not even revealed her name. She is one of several children of the Supreme Leader, and little is known about the others. Showing her in public may be a symbolic way for Kim to allow the North Korean elites, people, and the world to get to know her face.
He may have his own experience in mind. For decades, the world impatiently waited for his father, Kim Jong-il, to name a successor. Only in September 2010 did the fog clear, when Kim Jong-un was promoted to the equivalent of a four-star general in the Korean People’s Army. The then-youthful and unknown Kim took the mantle of the North Korean leadership following his father’s sudden death in December 2011. In contrast, Kim Jong-il was officially announced as the successor to Kim Il-sung — the founding father of North Korea — in 1980, fourteen years before the former’s death.
There is another explanation for the public appearance of Kim Ju-ae. Her appearances have been hitherto limited to military parades and missile launches, which carry immense propagandistic value for her father’s rule. In November last year, both father and his “most beloved” daughter — as North Korean state media then termed Kim Ju-ae — inspected an ICBM before they gleefully watched the launching of the missile. Although it is unclear whether Kim Ju-ae will inherit her father’s role, one message is being made crystal clear: that it is not just the Kim regime that is here to stay; so too is a North Korea with ever-expanding missile and nuclear capabilities, a North Korea which future generations will witness and continue to uphold. And the treasured “Baekdu bloodline” will be sustained by keeping the leadership within the Kim family.
A third consideration of whether Kim Ju-ae will succeed her father pertains to North Korea’s patriarchal society. Similar speculation abounded during Kim Jong-un’s absence in 2020, when many observers suggested he might have died, and if the time had come for his acerbic younger sister, Kim Yo-jong — rising the ranks of the elite — to succeed him.
Though unlikely, it is not impossible for a woman to lead. Kim Jong-un may wish to break with the historically male-dominated nature of the North Korean military and party officials if doing so allows the Kim dynasty to continue. And although it is rare, it is not unknown for women to have been appointed to senior positions of leadership in the country. Choe Son-hui, North Korea’s sharp-tongued negotiator in the infamous meetings between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, was, in June last year, promoted to foreign minister. At the same time, being the next supreme leader is no mean feat.
History tells us that we should not jump to hasty conclusions. Perhaps to the frustration of observers and analysts, a long waiting game lies ahead. But even if the next leader of the hermit kingdom turns out not be Kim Ju-ae, this young Kim will certainly grow up in a state with ever-expanding nuclear and missile capabilities. North Korea’s nuclear weapons are not going anywhere, and Kim Jong-un wants the world to know that his family are here to stay as well.
This article was originally published on The Spectator’s UK website.