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PoliticsNorth Korea

What do we know about Kim Jong Un's daughter?

Julian Ryall in Tokyo
January 10, 2023

The North Korean dictator has been seen in public with his daughter, giving rise to speculation that she might be his heir.

A photo by the North Korean government shows Kim Jong Un, center, and his daughter, right, waving to the soldiers who were involved in what it called the test-launch of its Hwasong-17 ICBM, at an unidentified location in North Korea
State news media have described Kim Ju Ae as Kim Jong Un's 'most beloved child'Image: Korean Central News Agency/AP Photo/picture alliance

Like a proud father, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un has shown off his oldest daughter via the regime's media in recent months, holding her hand in the shadow of a missile at a launch site in November and subsequently having her stand at his shoulder in front of massed ranks of loyal troops.  

Kim Ju Ae is believed to have been born in 2013 and is the second of Kim's three children, including a son and two daughters.

Her appearance alongside the head of the world's sole Communist dynasty has prompted the South Korean intelligence service to conclude that Kim is demonstrating he intends to keep the Kim bloodline in control of the isolated state for generations to come.

But analysts say that Kim Ju Ae assuming her father's position is not a foregone conclusion, as it would require an unheard-of change in attitudes in the North's male-dominated society and would almost certainly trigger resistance from the overwhelmingly male senior ranks of the nation's military and political worlds.

Kim's intentions unclear 

However, analysts concede that only Kim himself knows whether he intends to one day make his daughter the leader of the isolated nation.

North Korean media have shown pictures of high-ranking officials bowing to Kim Ju Ae, with the gushing text describing her as Kim's "most beloved" child. She has appeared in a white parka and a long black coat with a fur-lined collar, showing some of the fashion sense of her mother, Ri Sol Ju, who is something of a style icon in the North.  

Little else is known about Kim Ju Ae or her siblings.

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But in a briefing in early January, the South Korean National Intelligence Service told senior politicians that by taking his daughter to public places, Kim is already laying the groundwork for what would be the third hereditary succession of power in Pyongyang.

Kim himself took over from his father, Kim Jong Il, when he died suddenly in December 2011.  

Underlining the complications that are rife when it comes to claiming the leadership of North Korea, Kim Jong Un himself was for many years not considered his father's chosen successor.

That honor was expected to go to his older half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, until he infuriated his father in 2001 by being arrested at an airport in Tokyo traveling on a forged Dominican Republic passport and apparently planning to visit Disneyland.

Even though Kim Jong Un beat his half-brother to the top post, he still clearly saw him as a threat to his legitimacy and rule. In February 2017, Kim Jong Nam was assassinated at Kuala Lumpur airport with VX nerve agent, with the assailants allegedly quickly escaping to North Korea.

Is Kim Jong Un ailing?

There have been suggestions that Kim Jong Un is not in the best of health, as evidenced by images showing his portly figure, a visible smoking habit and suggestions that he struggles with gout and possibly diabetes, just as his father did.

He may only be 39 years old, but the question of succession is likely to have already become a topic within the halls of power in Pyongyang.

It may just be premature to single out who his replacement might be.

"I find it hard to believe that this girl will be able to take over from her father, primarily because she is female," said Toshimitsu Shigemura, a professor at Tokyo's Waseda University and the author of a number of books on the Kim dynasty.  

"North Korea remains a deeply conservative and Confucianist society, meaning that Kim Ju Ae emerging as her father's successor is impossible," he told DW.  

"I think we have to assume that he will choose to pass control over to his son when the time comes, but he will definitely want the position of leader to remain in the family, to follow what the North refers to as the 'Paektu bloodline,'" he said. 

Mount Paektu straddles the border with China and is where North Korean propaganda today claims Kim Il Sung, the founder of the nation and Kim Jong Un's grandfather, had his guerrilla base as he fought the Japanese occupiers of the Korean Peninsula in the 1940s. Other accounts say he spent most of his time in a camp in Russia for displaced persons until the war was over and he was installed as a puppet ruler of the North by Moscow.  

'Distracting attention'

"I believe that Kim had his daughter appear alongside him before the North's media and at these quite symbolic locations to demonstrate his determination to continue on despite the very serious issues that the country faces due to economic sanctions and the closure of the borders due to the pandemic," said Shigemura. 

"He is trying to distract the people's attention, show off his happy family and even encourage the people to express how impressed they are of him as a father as well as a leader," the expert added.

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There is still widespread respect and even admiration for the Kim family among older generations in North Korea, although increased smuggling of foreign television programs and movies into the North is weakening that support among younger people, Shigemura said.

By demonstrating that he intends for his family to continue to rule, Kim may be attempting to discourage dissent, Shigemura added.

Lim Eun-jung, an associate professor of international studies at South Korea's Kongju National University, said that given the ages of Kim's children, it is far too early to be speculating over who might take over his roles.

"It is true that he does not look too healthy, but I do not think it is possible to say what might happen in the future there because Kim Ju Ae is just so young," she said.  

"I think these appearances together are more likely to be signals to the North Korean public, creating an image of a brighter future for the younger generations," she said. "It might be a bit theatrical, but it arguably looks more 'advanced' for Kim to be with his daughter at these events instead of his son. 

"But it is too early and too difficult to read more into the situation than that."

Edited by: Srinivas Mazumdaru

Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea