SEOUL — The first public appearance of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s daughter in state media photos of the latest ballistic missile test has North Korea watchers buzzing in search of greater meaning.
Was it a clue about Kim’s succession plans, though the girl is not yet in her teens? And given the strange setting, who was the targeted audience for these images?
Accurately divining the communications released by North Korea, one of the most closed countries in the world, is an educated guessing game at best. Its propaganda can carry multiple messages simultaneously and can serve as a type of Rorschach test for differing opinions. But many experts agree the photograph’s release was an intriguing move by Kim that sheds light on how he may want to be viewed as a leader and father, both domestically and by the international community.
“This is a highly unusual case. You can’t view it through one lens. I believe Kim considered both the external and domestic implications,” said Kwak Gil-seop, former director of the North Korean Regime Research Office at the government-affiliated Institute for National Security Strategy. “This was the result of very intentional and complex planning. I think it’s the best one yet among Kim Jong Un’s staged events.”
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The images of Kim and his daughter, published Saturday, showed them on 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 has the capability of reaching the East Coast of the United States.
State media said Kim brought his “beloved” daughter, who was not named, along with his wife, Ri Sol Ju, who has appeared in past 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.
South Korean intelligence officials say 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 he defected, said he thinks Kim wanted to both emphasize his family’s roots and use them to underscore the foundation of North Korea’s nuclear development — a signal that the weapons program, the crux of the regime’s survival strategy, is here to stay.
“By showing his daughter next to the ICBM, [Kim] is announcing to the world and his people that DPRK will never give up its nuclear program and it will be carried on throughout his lineage,” Tae said, using the official abbreviation for North Korea. “And this message also implies that the world cannot achieve denuclearization of DPRK via influencing” China.
A North Korean statement hinted at the meaning behind the photos a day after their release. In a story published in Rodong Sinmun, a state media outlet, an unnamed North Korean woman described how she watched the event on television with her children. She was quoted as praising its success, saying that thanks to the country’s weapons, her children “would never know war and live under clear blue skies.”
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Regardless of the motivation, his daughter’s appearance broke norms. Kim is the third generation of his family to lead North Korea, and the Kim leaders’ children historically have not made such appearances until after they were designated as successor, noted Rachel Minyoung Lee, an expert in North Korean media propaganda.
It’s not the first time Kim has strayed from the conventions set by his father and grandfather. He has, for example, been more forthcoming about his country’s food crisis and other problems than his predecessors were.
And unlike his father, who did not reveal his wife and only appeared in public with his sister later in life, Ri was shown in state media six months after Kim ascended to power, and his sister, a top aide, appears regularly in public.
“The unprecedented move of unveiling 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 in the past decade has made efforts to make propaganda more persuasive and relatable, and that sometimes included increased transparency” and highlighting a more human side of Kim.
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“Ju Ae likely was meant to represent future generations, and there is no stronger expression of your resolve than your child,” Lee said.
There could be still other motivations, according to Kwak, the North Korea regime expert. By shifting the conversation to his role as a family leader, he could be trying to remind political elites and domestic audiences of his “Baekdu” bloodline as a descendant of the country’s founder, Kim Il Sung.
“Beyond the military issues and diplomatic complications [of an ICBM test], he turned the world’s attention on himself as a father. He has obfuscated the issues of provocations and nuclear weapons development, while promoting his image,” Kwak said.
The photos have raised questions about potential plans to name a successor to Kim, though he is only 38. Experts say any assumptions would be premature based on his daughter’s one-time appearance. The past two succession campaigns took years to unfold through private meetings with political leaders.
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Still, this could be the beginning of a years-long process to craft Ju Ae’s public persona and train her to become an established member of the North Korean elite, or even an influential official in the regime, said Michael Madden, who runs the website North Korea Leadership Watch.
Kim has built significantly on his predecessors’ work in developing the country’s nuclear weapons program, Madden said. Bringing his daughter to the Hwasong-17 launch could be a way to reinforce the family legacy as well as associating her with it.
“This is a way of saying, ‘I’m going to bring out the oldest daughter and guess who’s going to be running North Korea? We’re going to continue the Kim family rule here, so don’t be making any plans,’ ” Madden said.
Potential political challengers should pay attention, he added. “Bringing her out like that, even if she doesn’t become supreme leader, it’s a way of saying, ‘This is going to continue, and don’t even try to think about power challenges.’ ”