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Is Kim Ju-ae North Korea’s heir apparent?

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North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, right, and his daughter Ju-ae inspect a missile facility at an unspecified location in North Korea, in a photo released by state media on Jan. 1, 2023. [YONHAP]
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, right, and his daughter Ju-ae inspect a missile facility at an unspecified location in North Korea, in a photo released by state media on Jan. 1, 2023. [YONHAP]

On New Year’s Day, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un made an appearance on state television viewing an array of weapons at a missile base in an undisclosed location.

What really caught the world’s attention was not the Hwasong-12 intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs), KN-23 short-range ballistic missiles or transporter erector launcher (TEL) at the site, but the fact that Kim was hand-in-hand with his second child.

This was the young girl’s third appearance. Her first was with her father at a test of Pyongyang’s new Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on Nov. 18, 2022.

That was the first time any of Kim’s offspring were shown to the public.

The daughter’s latest appearance is fueling speculation on whether Kim is setting her up as his heir apparent.

Children of North Korea’s ruling dynasty have traditionally been kept from public view until they reached adulthood. Mystery is part of the personality cult of the Kim family, also known as the Mount Paektu bloodline.

In her second appearance at an event celebrating the ICBM launch later in November, high-ranking North Korean officials were photographed bowing to the daughter — as she stood straight — showing notable reverence to her.

North Korean state media described this daughter as Kim Jong-un’s “most beloved” child, though it never revealed her name or age. South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) said she is believed to be named Kim Ju-ae, and is around nine or 10 years old.

Ju-ae resembles both of her parents and is dressed with notable style.

Like her mother Ri Sol-ju, Ju-ae appears to be emerging as a new style icon and the leader of the younger generation of North Koreans.

Some analysts see Ju-ae’s public appearances as an attempt to solidify the regime’s security.

Others tentatively suggest that Ju-ae may be cementing her role as heir apparent to carry on a fourth generation of the Kim dynasty and someday take control of the North’s nuclear weapons.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un holds hands with his daughter Ju-ae as they prepare to watch the launch of a new Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) at Pyongyang International Airport on Nov. 18 in a photo released by the North's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on Nov. 19, 2022. [YONHAP]
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un holds hands with his daughter Ju-ae as they prepare to watch the launch of a new Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) at Pyongyang International Airport on Nov. 18 in a photo released by the North’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on Nov. 19, 2022. [YONHAP]

Who is Kim Jong-un’s ‘most beloved’ child?

Kim Jong-un and his wife Ri Sol-ju are believed to have married in 2009 and have three children born around 2010, 2013 and 2017. The first is believed to be a son and the two others are daughters.

Ju-ae is the only one of Kim Jong-un’s three kids that we have a name for thanks to retired NBA star Dennis Rodman. Rodman revealed to the media in September 2013 he held Kim’s baby girl in his arms after a visit to Pyongyang on the invitation of the North Korean leader earlier in the year, revealing her name for the first time.

The world got its first look at Ju-ae on Nov. 19, 2022, in a series of photos released by state media. She was observing the Hwasong-17 ICBM test the previous day.

The North’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported that Kim was “together with his beloved daughter and wife” to take part in “a crucial milestone” in the regime’s nuclear development. It did not specify the daughter’s name or age.

Her appearance overshadowed Pyongyang’s boast that it had launched a Hwasong-17 — an ICBM dubbed the “monster” missile with a range of around 15,000 kilometers, which would put the United States mainland within its range.

The South’s spy agency NIS later confirmed that the child in the photos was believed to be Kim Ju-ae, the North Korean leader’s second child.

On Nov. 27, the state-run Rodong Sinmun released 15 photos of Ju-ae on its front and second pages, this time with officials who worked on the launch of the Hwasong-17.

The father and daughter pair was affectionately holding hands. In two photographs, Ju-ae places her hand on her seated father’s shoulder, an act of intimacy expected only from closest family members.

In her latest appearance in images released by the North’s Korean Central Television on Jan. 1, she is visiting a missile base at an unspecified location with her father, viewing what appears to be over a dozen Hwasong-12 IRBMs and other missiles.

The images were shown in a report on the results of the North’s ruling Workers’ Party plenary meeting held from Dec. 26 to 31.

Unification Ministry spokesman Cho Joong-hoon confirmed to reporters on Jan. 2 that Kim’s daughter has been featured in the North Korean media three times and that Seoul would continue to “monitor and evaluate related trends” of coverage of Kim Ju-ae.

Kim Ju-ae poses with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at a photo session with missile officials involved in the Hwasong-17 ICBM launch in a photo released by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on Nov. 27, 2022. [YONHAP]
Kim Ju-ae poses with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at a photo session with missile officials involved in the Hwasong-17 ICBM launch in a photo released by the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on Nov. 27, 2022. [YONHAP]

Why reveal Ju-ae now?  

In September 2022, a video clip of a young girl in a pink dress and short hair at the center of a children’s choir at an event celebrating North Korea’s 74th founding anniversary attended by Kim and Ri caught South Korean and western media’s attention.

The video showed Kim smiling widely and Ri wrapping her hand around the child’s back after the performance, raising speculation that this could be Kim’s daughter.

The big reveal came two months later.

“Exposing a member of the Kim family is a strategic choice that has to be carefully planned or determined to be necessary; there is simply no accidental or spontaneous exposure,” said Hong Min, director of the North Korean Research Division at Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU).

“In the case of the ‘royal family,’ not only are there issues of personal safety, but once revealed, it’s not just an internal security issue, but various foreign intelligence agencies can mark them and monitor their every move.”

But despite the risks, Hong pointed out that publicizing the father-daughter relationship has a “considerable image-making effect” and also brings the leader closer to the North Korean people.

“Through showing stability in his family, he is also guaranteeing the safety and security of the future generations,” or the so-called “market generation,” those born after 2010.

“It shows they have a weapon that can secure the future of the country,” said Hong, “and presents an image of the head of a family and a leader who is guaranteeing the safety of all North Koreans and their children.”

Appearing with his daughter at the missile site also “softens the belligerent military image,” said Hong, and “provides a justification for developing missiles and having nuclear weapons.”

North Korea described the successful test of the Hwasong-17 last November as a “historic day,” and Kim Jong-un brought along his second child, pointed out Cheong Seong-chang, director of the Center for North Korean Studies at the Sejong Institute.

“Kim Jong-un wanted to show off the great achievement of the successful test of the Hwasong-17 ICBM, and I believe he naturally tried to link loyalty to himself with loyalty to his daughter,” said Cheong.

“It’s not like he took his daughter out to an on-site inspection out of the blue,” said Cheong. “Kim Ju-ae was brought out on an historical day, and officials in the related fields pledged in a letter their loyalty from generation to generation to the Mount Paektu bloodline. So, naturally, Kim intended to instill an image that his daughter would succeed his achievements.”

Kim Ju-ae and her mother Ri Solju. [YONHAP]
Kim Ju-ae and her mother Ri Solju. [YONHAP]

How did Ju-ae become an overnight style icon?

In her Nov. 18 sighting, Ju-ae looked like a typical elementary school girl, sporting a padded jacket with a white fur collar over black pants. She had straight bangs, hair tied back with a blue scrunchie. For a fun pop of color, she had red patent leather shoes with bows.

The first thing many people noted was her remarkable resemblance to her father.

In her second appearance, she sported a more mature look, donning a black woolen coat with a black fur collar, similar to a style worn by her mother Ri Sol-ju, the reigning style icon for the Pyongyang elite.

Ju-ae’s bangs were swept to the side, and her hair styled in a half-up do, Ri’s signature look, drawing attention this time to the resemblance between mother and daughter. Kim Jong-un also sported an all-black look on that occasion, wearing a black leather double-breasted trench coat.

In her New Year’s Day appearance, Ju-ae again is dressed in a long black coat, black trousers and black leather shoes, with her half-up hairstyle, similar to her second appearance.

The white puffer jacket Ju-ae wore on her first appearance reportedly sparked a padded jacket boom in North Korea.

In early December, the Rodong Sinmun published pictures of North Korean women in white and pink padded jackets, indicating that Ju-ae was a trendsetter following in her mother’s footsteps.

“Kim Jong-un daughter” was the most popular search term related to North Korea in Google search engines globally in the days after her public appearances, catapulting her to worldwide fame.

Experts point out that Kim’s styles varied according to the occasion, and that Ju-ae sported a more casual look for the missile test, and more formal attire for the commemorative photo.

“What’s certain is that such outfits weren’t mere personal preferences,” said Hong Min, director of the North Korean Research Division at Korea Institute for National Unification (KINU). “There must have been coordination, similar to how Ri Sol-ju’s clothes are similarly coordinated depending on the event location and various other things.”

He pointed out that this publicity and image-making, down to Ju-ae’s outfits, was likely meticulously coordinated by Kim Yo-jong, the leader’s powerful younger sister in charge of propaganda.

“Once revealed, it is not a one-time exposure, but with the intention to fully utilize Kim Ju-ae for image politics for government activities.”

A compilation of North Korean first lady Ri Sol-ju’s outfits. [YONHAP]
A compilation of North Korean first lady Ri Sol-ju’s outfits. [YONHAP]

Who is Ri Sol-ju, North Korea’s first lady?

Before she became North Korea’s first lady, Ri was best known as a cheerleader, a very competitive position, who traveled to South Korea for the 2005 Asian Athletics Championship in Incheon.

Ri is reported to have come from an upper-class family. Her exact age is unknown, though she is assumed to be in her early to mid-30s. She was a singer in the Unhasu Orchestra, an elite troupe of handpicked musicians, before she married Kim Jong-un around 2009.

As first lady, Ri also went through a style transformation and is credited with popularizing Western-style attire, miniskirts, luxury bags and high heels.

Ri was immediately noted for her exceptional beauty in South Korea, and compared to the North’s version of a K-pop star.

In her earliest appearances, Ri was often seen wearing modest black skirted suits, considered typical for the Pyongyang female elite. She wore a short haircut before adopting her signature long-haired, half-up do.

She began donning pastel colors, skirt suits reminiscent of Jackie Kennedy, brighter patterns, floral prints, statement accessories and luxury brand bags, including Dior.

Ri is often credited for a boom in fake luxury bags, and brighter colors and patterns also caught on with Pyongyang women, according to defectors, who said that bright fabrics similar to Ri’s outfits sold out quickly.

Ri’s fashion choices were also seen to be linked to Kim Jong-un’s focus on improving his country’s economy after coming into power.

A senior North Korean military official is seen bowing to Kim Ju-ae at the commemorative photo shoot in a screen capture from the North’s Korean Central Television on Nov. 27. [YONHAP]
A senior North Korean military official is seen bowing to Kim Ju-ae at the commemorative photo shoot in a screen capture from the North’s Korean Central Television on Nov. 27. [YONHAP]

What is the Mount Paektu bloodline?

The so-called Mount Paektu bloodline refers to the North Korean ruling family. The Kim dynasty dates to founding father Kim Il Sung, and after he died in 1994, North Korea was run by his son Kim Jong-il and then his grandson Kim Jong-un.

Mount Paektu, an active volcano straddling the North Korean-Chinese border, is considered the spiritual home of the Korean people. The Mount Paektu bloodline is a major part of the personality cult of Kim Il Sung and his successors, and three generations of Kims were officially born on the mountain, though historical accounts contradict that claim.

Kim’s children are comparable to “princes or princesses in a dynastic system,” said Cheong.

Senior military brass are seen bowing low to Ju-ae at the Nov. 27 photo event, showing her status as Kim’s daughter surpasses that of four-star generals much older than her.

“What really surprised me is that four-star generals bowed 90 degrees to Kim Ju-ae,” People Power Party (PPP) Rep. Thae Yong-ho, a former senior North Korean diplomat who defected to the South, told SBS radio later that month. “North Korea is similar to the South, based on Confucian tradition, and this would not happen even for the children [of the Kim dynasty], at least not during Kim Il Sung’s time.”

He said Ju-ae’s appearance “seems to be an opportunity to firmly carve out the fourth generation of succession.”

Why the secrecy?

Kim Jong-il was named heir-apparent to North Korean founder Kim Il Sung in 1974 but was officially designated his father’s successor at a ruling Workers’ Party meeting six years later in 1980.

Kim Jong-il named Kim Jong-un his successor in 2008, but he made his first appearance in the media two years later.

His father told his closest aides that Kim Jong-un would be his successor since 1992, after his son’s eighth birthday, because he resembled him the most. Kim Jong-il passed over his first born son, Kim Jong-nam, and second, Kim Jong-chol, in favor of Kim Jong-un. Kim Jong-nam had a different mother than the other two sons, so he was their half-brother.

Kim Jong-chol and Kim Jong-un spent their adolescent years at an elite boarding school in Bern, Switzerland. They were left in the care of maternal aunt Ko Yong-suk, and her husband, Ri Gang. Ko, Ri and their three children later defected to the United States.

Kim Jong-nam fell out of favor with his father in the early 2000s after a visit to Tokyo Disneyland in 2001 that produced embarrassing headlines around the world. He was assassinated with a nerve agent at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia in February 2017.

“It took a lot of time for Kim Jong-un to overcome the prejudices of the outside world and questions about regime stability when he took power,” said Cheong. “However, there will be no such talk if his successor is appointed early on.”

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, right, and daughter Ju-ae watch the launch of a new Hwasong-17 ICBM at Pyongyang International Airport on Nov. 18 in a photo released by the North's official Korean Central News Agency on Nov. 19, 2022. [YONHAP]
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, right, and daughter Ju-ae watch the launch of a new Hwasong-17 ICBM at Pyongyang International Airport on Nov. 18 in a photo released by the North’s official Korean Central News Agency on Nov. 19, 2022. [YONHAP]

Who will succeed Kim?  

Some analysts point out it that the hidden first child, or son, is likely to be Kim’s heir apparent and will be kept out of the public eye until he grows older, as Kim Jong-un was.

They point out that Kim himself is still young, not yet 40, leaving a lot of time to formally name a successor.

“Kim Jong-un is a young leader, who will likely rule the country for more than 20 years taking into consideration his age,” said Hong. “He needs to be reaching the current young generation, teenagers and those in their 20s, and 30s, the people that will become the central pillars of North Korean society in the future.”

Hong was skeptical that Ju-ae is the heir apparent, noting that North Korea “in general is patriarchal,” and that “despite society changing in many ways, it is still a country where the differences between men and women are very severe.”

He said that the first son is likely to be Kim’s successor.

However, it’s not unheard of for North Korea to have powerful female officials.

Other prominent female figures include Kim’s younger sister and closest aide Kim Yo-jong, the first vice director of its propaganda department, who often serves as a mouthpiece for her brother, and Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui, who was responsible for denuclearization negotiations.

Kim Kyong-hui, the once powerful aunt of Kim Jong-un, was the only legitimate daughter of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung and wielded immense influence during the Kim Jong-il era. Her husband, Jang Song-thaek, a former vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, was executed in late 2013 for allegedly plotting to overthrow the regime, which put Kim Kyong-hui out of the spotlight for some years before she made reappeared in 2020.

“Kim Ju-ae can have a role to assist her father’s governing activities, and a role to assist her brother, who later becomes his successor,” said Hong, similar to the role Kim Yo-jong plays today. “She can serve as an icon of her generation.”

However, Cheong pointed out that there were only three previous people described as “precious” before Ju-ae, said Cheong. They were former leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong-il, and the current leader Kim Jong-un.

“This suggests that Kim Ju-ae will soon become the fourth-generational leader,” he said, and “it can be interpreted that she has been chosen to succeed her father.”

Ju-ae is described in North Korean state media as Kim’s “most beloved” child, literally meaning she is his favorite of his three offspring, he pointed.

“The reason Kim Jong-un was chosen as the successor to Kim Jong-il is because Kim Jong-il loved him the most amongst his sons,” said Cheong. “Even if Kim Jong-un’s first child is a son, if he doesn’t have the temperament, or is considered soft like the music-loving Kim Jong-chol, or weak [like Kim Jong-nam], it would be difficult for the North Korean leader to name such a son as his successor. However, even if Kim Ju-ae is a daughter, if she has strong fighting power, she could be the logical choice for him.”

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and his daughter Ju-ae inspect a missile facility at an unspecified location in North Korea, in a photo released by state media on Jan. 1, 2023. [YONHAP]
North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and his daughter Ju-ae inspect a missile facility at an unspecified location in North Korea, in a photo released by state media on Jan. 1, 2023. [YONHAP]

What next for Ju-ae?

Whether or not Ju-ae is indeed Kim’s successor, her every move will be scrutinized from now on.

“In light of his own experience, Kim may have decided on a successor and disclosed it early on to make it is less shocking to people and provide an opportunity for his successor to form a wider network of people around her,” said Cheong.

Ju-ae probably won’t be able to study abroad, as Kim did, because she is now a public figure and there are stricter international sanctions in place.

“For the time being, she will still be in training,” said Cheong. “She likely wouldn’t be able to properly aid her father until she turns around 20 years old and will likely continue to watch and learn by his side. She is also expected to build up her own personal connections in the meantime.”

Kim may gradually share information with Ju-ae to “firmly command and control North Korea’s most important strategic assets, nuclear weapons and missiles,” Cheong said.

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]

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