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The leader of North Korea shows off his daughter. What could it mean?


SEOUL — The first public appearance of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s daughter in pictures of the latest ballistic missile test in state media has North Korean viewers buzzing in search of greater meaning.

Was it a clue to Kim’s succession plans, even though the girl is not yet a teenager? And given the strange setting, who was the intended audience for these images?

Accurately classify communications released by North Korea, one of the most secretive countries in the world, is a developed guessing game at best. The propaganda can convey several messages at once and can serve as a kind of Rorschach test for different opinions. But many experts agree that the release of the photo was an intriguing move by Kim that sheds light on how he may want to be seen as a leader and father both domestically and by the international community.

“This is a highly unusual case. You can’t look at it through one lens. I believe Kim has considered both the external and domestic implications,” said Kwak Gil-seop, former director of the North Korean Regime Research Office of the government-affiliated Institute for National Security Strategy.”This was the result of very deliberate and complex planning. I think it is the best yet among Kim Jong Un’s staged events.

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Footage of Kim and his daughter, released Saturday, showed them at the site of what Pyongyang announced as a successful launch of its most powerful intercontinental ballistic missile to date. The Hwasong-17 is being designed to carry multiple nuclear warheads and can reach the east coast of the United States.

State media said Kim took his “beloved” daughter, who was not named, along with his wife, Ri Sol Ju, who has appeared in previous missile test photos. Observers say they believe the girl is Kim Ju Ae, whose name was first revealed in 2013 when retired NBA star Dennis Rodman described holding her as a baby during his visit to North Korea that year.

According to South Korean intelligence agencies, Kim has two other children. The older, a boy, was born around 2010. Even less is known about the other child, who was born around 2017.

Tae Yong-ho, a South Korean lawmaker who was a top North Korean diplomat before his defect, said he thinks Kim wanted to both emphasize his family’s roots and use them to build the foundations of North Korea’s nuclear development. – a signal that the weapons program, the core of the regime’s survival strategy, is here to stay.

“Showing his daughter next to the ICBM, [Kim] announces to the world and its people that the DPRK will never give up its nuclear program and that it will be continued throughout its lineage,” Tae said, using the official abbreviation for North Korea. “And this message also implies that the world cannot achieve the denuclearization of North Korea by influencing China.”

A North Korean statement a day after their release hinted at the meaning behind the photos. In a story published in Rodong Sinmun, a state media outlet, an unnamed North Korean woman described watching the event on television with her children. She praised its success, saying that thanks to the country’s guns, her children would “never know war and live under a clear blue sky”.

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Regardless of motivation, his daughter’s appearance was against the norms. Kim is the third generation of his family to lead North Korea, and the Kim leaders’ children have historically only appeared after being designated as successor, noted Rachel Minyoung Lee, an expert in North Korean media propaganda.

It is not the first time that Kim deviates from the conventions of his father and grandfather. For example, he is more open about the food crisis in his country and other problems than his predecessors.

And unlike his father, who did not reveal his wife and did not appear in public with his sister until later in life, Ri appeared in state media six months after Kim came to power, and his sister, a top aide, regularly appears in the public.

“The unprecedented move to reveal the incumbent leader’s child to the public should be understood in the broader context of North Korea’s evolving propaganda strategy under Kim Jong Un,” Lee said. “North Korea has made efforts over the past decade to make propaganda more persuasive and relatable, and that has sometimes included more transparency,” highlighting a more human side to Kim.

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“Ju Ae was probably meant to represent future generations, and there’s no stronger expression of your determination than your child,” Lee said.

According to Kwak, the North Korean regime expert, there may be other motives. By shifting the conversation to his role as a family leader, he could try to remind political elites and the domestic public of his ‘Baekdu’ bloodline. as a descendant of the country’s founder, Kim Il Sung.

“Apart from the military problems and diplomatic complications [of an ICBM test], he turned the world’s attention to himself as a father. He has glossed over the issues of provocation and nuclear weapons development while promoting his image,” Kwak said.

The photos have raised questions about possible plans to name a successor for Kim, even though he is only 38. Experts say all assumptions are premature based on his daughter’s one-time appearance. The past two consecutive campaigns have taken years to unfold through private meetings with political leaders.

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Still, this could be the start of a years-long process to create Ju Ae’s public persona and train her to become an established member of North Korea’s elite, or even an influential official in the regime, said Michael Madden, who runs the website. manages. North Korea leadership watch.

Kim has built strongly on the work of his predecessors in developing the country’s nuclear weapons program, Madden said. Taking his daughter to the Hwasong-17 launch could be a way to strengthen the family legacy and associate her with it.

“This is a way of saying, ‘I’m going to bring out the oldest daughter and guess who’s going to lead North Korea? We’re going to continue the reign of the Kim family here, so don’t make plans,” Madden said.

Potential political challengers should pay attention, he added. “Bringing her out like that, even if she doesn’t become supreme leader, is a way of saying, ‘This is going on, and don’t even try to think about power challenges.’ ”

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