January 25, 2023
by: Seong-Hyon Lee
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Until now, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has kept his private life very private. But unexpectedly, his daughter Kim Ju Ae has made three public appearances over the past two months.
South Korean intelligence officials have told lawmakers that she is around 10 years old. But Ju Ae, who resembles her mother, Ri Sol Ju, looks tall for that age.
Ju Ae’s appearance was initially seen as a one-time event, staged to highlight Kim Jong Un’s fatherly image as the leader of patriarchal North Korea.
When she appeared a second time during a celebration of a test of the nuclear-armed Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile, some said the propaganda photo op was meant to show Kim’s will to safeguard the security of North Korea’s future generation — as symbolized by Ju Ae — with nuclear weapons.
But when she appeared yet a third time on Jan. 1, this sparked speculation about whether Ju Ae is being groomed as Kim’s successor. Rodong Sinmun, the official Workers’ Party newspaper, pointedly called her Kim’s “most beloved child.”
It might seem unusually early to introduce her as his presumed heir, though, since Kim Jong Un is just 39. Kim Jong Il, his father, ruled the country until he died of a stroke in 2011 at age 70 while grandfather Kim Il Sung, the founder of the regime, governed until his death at 82.
Kim Jong Un looks likely to rule the nation for the next 50 years or more. But he may have a reason to reveal a possible successor early.
Widely seen as an unlikely heir to Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un had a hard time establishing his status both domestically and internationally, including with China.
China is North Korea’s closet ally and President Xi Jinping brought back the iconic Cold War phrasing of “as close as lips and teeth” to describe the Beijing-Pyongyang relationship, saying once that ties between the two are the “one and only relationship in the world.
“Xi, though, kept his distance from Kim for six years after becoming China’s top leader. The two men finally met in 2018.
North Korea’s nuclear ambitions are often cited as the primary reason for Xi’s hesitation. But Xi’s reluctance to see Kim on an equal footing was a significant, underappreciated factor in their relational dynamics.
Bluntly put, Kim had an image problem in China.At age 27, he was suddenly catapulted into the global political arena after his father’s sudden death. Until then, North Korean state media had hardly reported about him or carried his image.
Foreign pundits widely portrayed him as young and inexperienced as well as likely a puppet of generals aged in their 60s and 70s, talk that was quite damaging to his authority.
Even in China, there were widespread doubts about whether the young Kim was the one who was really calling the shots in North Korea.
At the time, Jang Song Thaek, who was married to Kim Jong Il’s younger sister and had been a top aide to the elder Kim, acted as a de facto guardian for the young leader.
Jang’s clout was clearly on display in North Korean state television footage when he was seen standing next to Kim Jong Un during factory inspections as if he were a teacher supervising a student.
Jang often appeared relaxed, clasping his hands behind his back while other North Korean officials, all looking nervous, busily took notes of what Kim said. It was Jang’s Korean way of displaying his authority over Kim in public. Some South Korean analysts told me then that Jang would pay the price someday for this.
Xi is 31 years older than Kim. In the Asian cultural context, where age and respect go together, Xi is a father figure and the young Kim should show respect to his elder.
Xi, as the strongman of an increasingly powerful global power, reportedly regarded Kim as the nominal leader of a small country who should listen to him. A prominent Chinese academic even casually referred to him as “baby Kim.” Many Chinese saw Jang as the real power broker in North Korea, critically underestimating Kim.
Kim decided early on not to play a junior role in his relationship with Xi.
In the days leading up to North Korea’s third nuclear test in 2013, the Chinese Foreign Ministry summoned Pyongyang’s ambassador to tell him the planned test should be scrapped. The state-run Global Times newspaper warned North Korea that there would be a “heavy price” if the test went ahead, threatening an aid cutoff.
Kim responded by executing Jang, North Korea’s most well-known pro-China politician, in a hail of bullets for allegedly plotting a military coup.
Killing Jang brutally “in a resolute and swift manner,” to borrow a Chinese interlocutor’s words, helped Kim sculpt his image as the bona fide leader of North Korea, even drawing awe from some Chinese observers. Beijing sensed Kim was sending a message both to North Koreans and to the Chinese.
Fast forward to today. The National Intelligence Service, South Korea’s main spy agency, said Kim “showed a will for [another] family power transition” by making public his daughter’s appearance early on.
Kim reportedly has three children. Just like many things in North Korea, information on his children and who among them is to be considered the heir-apparent will be murky for some time for the outside world.
Nonetheless, the view that Kim has brought out Ju Ae to publicly hint at the existence of an heir should be taken seriously. His motivation likely has to do with his own experience of being underestimated as an unlikely heir because people did not know about him or even perhaps of his existence.
By revealing his possible successor early on, Kim wants to make sure her or his authority will be recognized immediately should the North Korean leader depart the scene prematurely. He is also making clear that he intends for family rule to continue into the fourth generation, an unprecedented development in a contemporary dictatorship.
Seong-Hyon Lee is a fellow with the George H. W. Bush Foundation for U.S.-China Relations. The views expressed in this publication are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the George H. W. Bush Foundation for U.S. China Relations.