When North Korean state media posted pictures of Kim Jong Un attending Friday’s launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile, the big news wasn’t the rocket.
What sent analysts scrambling was a young girl with a ponytail and puffy white jacket who was shown walking hand in hand with Kim after inspecting the ICBM. Other pictures showed the girl standing next to Kim and his wife, Ri Sol Ju, as they observed the launch from a viewing station.
Yes, that’s right — Kim, one of the world’s most secretive leaders, apparently unveiled a daughter at an ICBM launch.
The girl, whose name is Ju Ae, has long been the subject of rumors in South Korean and global media, but until now had never been seen in public — at least in a confirmed appearance.
The only reason the world knows her name is because former NBA basketball star Dennis Rodman revealed it after meeting with Kim in North Korea during a 2013 visit.
Ju Ae, who was born around 2013, is believed to be the second oldest of Kim’s three children with Ri. Their oldest child, a son, was born around 2010, according to South Korean spy agency assessments. The other children’s names are not known.
In fact, next to nothing is known about Kim’s family, which makes analysts wonder even more — why would he choose to unveil a daughter now, and why did he do it at a missile launch?
Theories abound. Was Kim sending a message about succession? Was it just his way of showing that he’s a family man? On Twitter, many made cringe-worthy jokes about the world’s most depressing “take your daughter to work day.”
“This is not exactly a family trip to the zoo,” said John Delury, a professor at South Korea’s Yonsei University, in a written message to VOA. “No question it says SOMETHING about succession. The problem is, what?”
Kim, who is believed to be 38, is the third generation of leaders in a Kim family that has near-divine status in North Korea. Kim took over the country following the sudden death of his father, Kim Jong Il, in 2011.
Since then, there have been repeated rounds of rumors about Kim Jong Un’s health. The speculation was partly spurred by the enormous amount of weight Kim has gained in recent years, as well as several extended periods where he did not make public appearances.
If Kim were to die, it’s not clear who would succeed him. His firstborn son is likely too young. His sister, Kim Yo Jong, has taken on a bigger public role in recent years, but analysts say she would struggle to overcome gender biases in North Korean society.
In this context, analysts are uncertain why Kim would unveil his daughter before he showed the world his son, who is likely ahead of her in any succession plan.
“I think we have to read it as a very early act of grooming,” Delury said. “It’s not entirely about ‘succession’ though, and we should take a deep breath. For example, the inclusion of his daughter softens the ‘martial’ spirit of the missile test.
“The implication is that Kim is not a warmonger, but a normal dad who cares about his kids like everyone else,” he added.
But any softer message that Kim may have intended was offset by his comments at the ICBM launch, where he blasted U.S. “imperialists” and vowed to continue a policy of “nukes for nukes and frontal confrontation for frontal confrontation.”
Some analysts say that by showing off his daughter at the launch of a Hwasong-17, the country’s largest missile that appears designed to carry multiple nuclear warheads, Kim may be signaling that he is invested in nukes for the long haul.
“It could be his way of indicating that he expects the nuclear deterrence enterprise to be a multigenerational affair for North Korea,” said Ankit Panda, a senior fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
In September, North Korea passed a new law further enshrining its nuclear weapons status, with Kim vowing to never give up his nukes or use them as a bargaining chip in negotiations.
Michael Madden, who focuses on North Korean leadership at the Washington-based Stimson Center, agrees with Panda’s assessment. But he says Kim also may be trying to send a message that not only his nukes, but also his family, isn’t going anywhere.
“He is showing his daughter the family legacy to which Kim Jong Un made a major contribution. This is also a way to smother out any long-term ambitions from other DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] elites about a post Kim Jong Un … political culture,” Madden said.
The state media photos — particularly one that shows the profiles of Kim and his daughter watching as the ICBM soars into the sky in the background — had striking and clearly intentional optics, said Jenny Town, another Korea specialist at the Stimson Center.
“[The picture] has sort of a gravity to it — that this is now her legacy too,” Town said. “It seems to underscore that this is here to stay — not something they plan to give up any time in the near future.”
Source: Voice of America