SEOUL – A world transfixed by North Korean bizarreness has gone bonkers with speculation about the recent reveal of Kim Jong Un’s daughter, Kim Ju Ae, whose first public appearance took place on the occasion of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) test launch on November 19.
State media images showed Kim accompanied by his daughter – unnamed in the North Korean reports – as a giant Hwasong-17 ICBM was hefted aloft. The location was Sunan, on the outskirts of Pyongyang and the site of the capital’s airport. Kim’s wife, Ri Sol Ju, also appeared in the reports.
While much chatter has focused on succession, the Kims are already deeply entrenched as de facto, third-generation monarchs. There is no known opposition to their rule, nor to the continuation of generational succession. With Kim believed to be 38, and his daughter 9, 10 or possibly even 12, succession looks a long way off.
Hence, the reason for the unveil may simply be – shockingly for pundits and reporters who often focus on the oddity of the Kims – a sign of normalcy.
Kim Jong Un, the third member of his family to rule the state, has been far more public relations-savvy and media-friendly than his father or grandfather. In this sense, the reveal of his daughter to the North Korean public is a continuation of a trend that encompasses the high media profile of his wife Ri Sol Ju, and the high party profile of his sister, Kim Yo Jong.
However, the messaging in North Korean state media is far less about a pre-teen Kim and far more about the awesome martial power that her dynasty has bequeathed to future generations.
‘Kim the Normal’
Nobody needs to venture far online to encounter tabloid stories and outlandish rumors about the Kims, the closest thing 21st-century geopolitics has to 007 villains.
Though she currently plays a rottweiler role in state media, lambasting South Korea and the US, Kim’s astute younger sister Yo Jong is known to be a master of media messaging and is believed to be her brother’s image manager.
His first major televised event was the funeral of their father when he appeared as a pallbearer at a brilliantly managed state funeral. His outward image – including his chubbiness – has been widely assessed to be modeled on his revered grandfather, Kim Il Sung.
He has appeared in propaganda shots and a TV segment visiting awed and delighted military units, overseeing missile launches and riding a white horse through the snows of Mount Paekdu – the near-sacred mountain where his grandfather supposedly undertook guerilla operations against Imperial Japan.
All this suggests a carefully managed image – common to dictatorial leaders who control media access. But there is nuance.
In addition to his tunics, Kim also appears in Western suits. And as well as royal waves from the balcony overlooking Kim Il Sung Square in Pyongyang – the scene of military parades, both day and night – he has delivered “fireside chat-style” televised addresses to his people.
He has empowered a number of state bodies that atrophied under his father’s rule, “normalizing” state governance. And many pundits say Kim – who was educated in Switzerland – is seeking to present a more normalized public image to the world.
Such normalcy is “highly unusual,” compared to the behaviors of Kim’s father and grandfather, said one expert.
“Kim Jong Un basically began to show his wife off a few months after the beginning of his rule,” said Andrei Lankov – noting the difference from his father, a notorious womanizer, and his grandfather. “It took 15 years before North Koreans learned that Kim Il Sung had a wife, and she briefly enjoyed prominence.”
The current Kim has the advantage of a Swiss education. “He grew up in Europe and saw how European rulers and their families behaved and does not see a reason why he should hide his family,” Lankov said.
“Kim Jong Un is different to his father or grandfather – he has shown a more public style of leadership,” added Kim Jeong-ro, vice president of civic group the Council on Diplomacy for Korean Unification. “He is the first North Korean leader to have his wife join, appear in public at formal ceremonies and during trips to facilities – he wants to be me more like a leader in the Western mold.”
This explains his public appearances with his wife and now his daughter. It also suggests how he sees himself.
“Any dictator would be very sensitive in posing with his heir at an early stage, as that would put the heir in danger,” said Kim. “But it is normal to show a first family to the public – like other world leaders.”
Yet the massive Western media focus on the young girl was not replicated north of the DMZ.
“The North Korean media did not reveal her name, it just mentioned Kim was there with his dear wife and his offspring,” said Go Myong-hyun, a research fellow who follows North Korean affairs at Seoul’s Asan Institute.
While North Koreans may not know her name, it had previously been revealed to Western audiences after US basketball star Dennis Rodman visited North Korea in 2013, spending several days with the leadership and meeting then-baby daughter, Kim Ju Ae.
A wag in Seoul, discussing Kim Ju Ae’s reveal, joked, “It was taking daughter to work day.” Joking aside, Go agrees: “In North Korean media, it was more of a family occasion.”
The fact that the “family occasion” was the launch of an ICBM capable of hitting the continental US with a nuclear bomb suggests the real importance of the young princess’ presentation to her people.
Ju Ae “was just a prop to symbolize something else,” said Go. “Clearly, the central figure was not her, even though the attention has focused on her.”
Days after the broadcast, North Korean state media said the goal of the Hwasong-17, the latest and biggest North Korean ICMB model, was “to protect future generations.” That message was reinforced by the young Kim at the launch site. Indeed, her outfit’s coloration may have been chosen to coordinate with the missile’s livery.
“It projects Kim’s view that nuclear-capable missiles are so organic and integrated into the North Korean leadership that they are inseparable,” Go said. “There is almost a filial sense of it: Like he is the father of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, the message is he loves the nukes as much as small kids.”
For impoverished, isolated and malnourished North Korea, the possession of weapons of mass destruction grants North Korea its only significance on the global stage.
“Kim styles himself as a fatherly national protector and is now presenting nuclear and missile programs as an inter-generational legacy of the family dynasty,” said Leif-Eric Easley, associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.
“Given North Korea’s economic struggles, it is unclear whether a ‘let them eat missiles’ approach is sustainable for regime legitimacy, but Kim’s political attachment to these weapons does not bode well for restarting denuclearization talks,” Easley said.
A female king?
The question inevitably raised by the foreign commentariat is whether Kim Ju Ae could one day inherit her father’s kingdom.
Go reckons not.
“There are a lot of advantages to having a male heir to the throne,” said Go. “The first issue is the relationship with the military, as the military is very important in North Korea. You can patch things up and follow the command of a female leader but it would cause a lot of friction.”
Go noted that South Korean intelligence and other sources believe there is also a Kim son, who could be revealed “in due course.”
But Lankov believes there is real significance in the fact that the daughter was the first child to be made public.
“He probably has to prepare his people for the idea that the next king will be female,” he said. “He does not need to say anything about succession, as everyone has to accept it, but a woman at the helm is a bit more odd, so that is a good reason to start showing her.”
Lankov said he places “some credibility” in the rumors of son, but added, “Really, I don’t know. You could ask a gossip columnist, but there is not a single gossip columnist in Pyongyang.”
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