You have to wonder why North Korean leader Kim Jong Un believed the launch of his longest-range intercontinental ballistic missile was the right place to introduce his daughter to the world.
Did he think the girl, who resembles her father, would so love to see the launch that she would forever not only revere daddy’s achievements but promise to build on the program after he’s gone?
At first glance, Kim’s daughter, a preteen, 10 or 12, may appear an unlikely candidate for succession, but North Korea’s state media would not have distributed the photos if she were not being groomed for great things. She’s believed to be the second of the three children of whom Kim and his wife, Ri Sol Ju, are the doting parents. As for her name, not officially revealed, we have to accept the word of Dennis Rodman, the old-time Chicago Bulls’ basketball star, who cuddled her during one of his visits to North Korea in 2013 as Kim Jong Un’s fun-loving guest and said her name was Ju Ae.
The decision to introduce the daughter publicly overshadows the launch of the latest model Hwasong-17, capable of reaching targets anywhere in the U.S., and it also confirms Kim’s need to be seriously worrying about his health and who’s likely to succeed him.
Beyond the succession, the fact that Kim chose the launch of the North’s most fearsome missile shows the impossibility of ever compromising on his program for developing bigger and better missiles. Now he’s imbuing the next generation with the glory of his missiles, just as he inherited the program from his father, Kim Jong Il.
Thae Yong-ho, a former senior North Korean diplomat who defected from the North’s embassy in London six years ago, stressed that reality to NK News, a website in Seoul that tries to track comings and goings in North Korea. “The reveal of the daughter means that North Korea will be (a) nuclear state from generation to generation,” he was quoted as saying. “The world must give up its dream to denuclearize North Korea.”
But can we be sure the photographs of Kim with his daughter show more than a loving father-daughter relationship?
Most revealing is her appearance between her mother and father in front of a crowd of wildly cheering officers. According to the report from the state-operated Korean Central News Agency, the mood was totally euphoric.
Kim Jong Un “came out to the site for the historic major strategic weapon test-fire, a crucial milestone in bolstering up the nuclear forces of the DPRK, together with his beloved daughter and wife, to personally guide the whole course of the test-fire,” said the KCNA report.
Another shot shows Ju Ae hovering over daddy’s shoulder as he officially confirmed the launch, which may have been the first of a Hwasong 17 capable of traveling 10,000 miles. (North Korea also claimed to have launched a Hwasong 17 in March, but it may have been a Hwasong 15.) Father and daughter are also seen posing in front of the missile before its launch.
Yang Moo-jin, president of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, told South Korea’s Yonhap News that Kim, by introducing Ju Ae in such a setting, “indicates his confidence in the Paekdu bloodline”—a reference to the sacred mountain on the Chinese border where North Korean mythology holds that Kim Il Sung battled the Japanese and his son, Kim Jong Il, was born.
Portentously, however, younger sister Kim Yo Jong does not appear to have been invited to the party.
The appearance of Ju Ae (assuming that’s her given name) should quell rumors that Yo Jong—widely believed to have been high on the list of possible successor—is in the running. Would not Jong Un have taken Yo Jong to the launch if she were in line?
Think of all that Yo Jong has done for her big brother. She’s played a role on his behalf with harshly worded statements against the Americans and South Koreans, including a recent attack on South Korea’s conservative President Yoon Suk-yeo, and done much else for him too. It was she who ordered the detonation of a North-South liaison office more than two years ago in a fit of rage against Yoon’s liberal predecessor, Moon Jae-in, for sticking to the South’s alliance with the U.S. despite his efforts at appeasement with the North.
Good for Yo Jong, but succession was perhaps always more likely to go to one of Kim’s children. So what’s become of Kim’s two boys? Why weren’t they in on the fun of the launch?
Kim, the third son of Kim Jong Il, succeeded his father and his father succeeded Kim Il Sung, founder of the dynasty. It’s not clear if Ju Ae is the third or second of his three kids, but she’s not the oldest, although that never stopped Kim’s ascension.
The North Korean media had never revealed any details of Kim’s kids at all until publicizing the missile launch in three pages of the party newspaper, Rodong Sinmun. Only the daughter was mentioned in shots showing her father as a doting parent, proud to hold his daughter’s hand for the benefit of his own people and an international audience that’s been lapping it up ever since.
The newspaper accused “hostile forces” of “hatred,” according to the NK News translation, in “attempts to steal the bright smiles off the faces of our children.” Kim ordered the nuclear program, it said, to avoid “the heartbreaking situation of our children ending up on the streets foraging for food after losing their mothers in enemy bombardments”—a reference to the bombing of North Korean cities and towns during the Korean War.
And what about the gender question? In the North’s highly sexist society, where women seldom attain top positions, might not Ju Ae face enormous hostility if she were to take over some day?
NK News quoted an anonymous defector to the South as saying that “thanks to her pedigree she would be able to overcome barriers on women entering the male-dominated leadership of North Korea’s highly patriarchal system.”
Yes, there’s a place for women in the hierarchy—but only a narrow one depending on highest-level connections as well as perseverance.
Aside from Kim Yo, the only other woman who’s attained a high position is Choe Son Hui, foreign minister and stepdaughter of a former premier who was close to regime founder Kim Il Sung, Jong Un’s grandfather.
Like Yo Jong, Choe is tasked with issuing fiery statements. While the media focused on Ju Ae, KCNA said Choe called UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres “a puppet of the U.S.” whom she mistook “for a member of the U.S. White House or its State Department” after he condemned the Hwasong 17 test and demanded the North “desist from further provocative actions.”
Choe rose through the hierarchy as a tough negotiator with the Americans in bygone years, and then there’s Hyon Son Wol, head of the famed Moranbong Band. Hyon was rumored to have had an affair with Kim, then rumored to have been executed with other members of the girl group—and then turned up alive and well.
NK News quoted Sokeel Park, director of Liberty in North Korea, which is dedicated to human rights for North Koreans, as saying, “They could make bloodline trump patriarchy in a similar way to queens inheriting power through royal families.”
We’ll know much more if Kim Ju Ae shows up with her father at other events. Meanwhile, Kim’s engineers and physicists have the more immediate task of fitting warheads at the tip of missiles of any range. Kim, who has yet to order the North’s seventh nuclear test, may want to focus on short-range tactical nukes capable of hitting targets in South Korea and Japan.
The next real test of Ju Ae’s standing will be to see if she’s with her father whenever he decides to push the button again on one of his missiles. The next one could even be a nuke test.