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Experts: A Girl and Missiles Are North Korea’s Way to Perpetuate Regime

Banquet to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Korean People's Army, in Pyongyang
Banquet to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Korean People's Army, in Pyongyang

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has made a symbolic gesture of telling the world his regime would continue into the next generation by presenting his daughter at a series of major military events featuring top generals and the latest military hardware, said experts.

Ju Ae, believed to be about 10 years old, was seen on two consecutive nights during celebrations for the 75th anniversary of the founding the Korean People’s Army (KPA).

North Korean state media showed Ju Ae alongside Kim and her mother, Ri Sol Ju, on a brightly lit review stand in Kim Il Sung Square on the night of Feb. 8 attending a military parade that featured 11 Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

The night before, Ju Ae sat between her parents at a lavish banquet attended by high-ranking military generals.

Analysts believe Kim brought his daughter to the events to let the world know his military achievements will be transferred to successive generations to ensure the survival of his regime for years to come.

Paektu bloodline

“Kim is showing the perpetuity of the Mount Paektu bloodline,” said Du Hyeogn Cha, principal fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul.

“He is emphasizing the three-generational leadership which passed down from Kim Il Sung to Kim Jong Il and then to himself will now continue on to the fourth generation and last forever.”

The Kim dynasty associates itself with Mount Paektu, the mystical origin place of all Korean people because it is where the spiritual founder of Dangun, the human son of a god and a bear, was said to have been born in 2333 BCE. The revered mountain straddles the border between North Korea and China.

The North Korean regime claims that Kim’s grandfather and founder of the country, Kim Il Sung, and his father, Kim Jong Il, were born on the mountain as a part of propaganda narrative created to mythologize the Kim family even though Kim Il Sung was born in Pyongyang, and his son Jong Il was born in Khabarovsk, Russia.

Michael Madden, an expert on North Korean leadership at the Stimson Center, said, “It’s a message that the Kim family leadership is going to stay in place and that it’s going to move to the fourth generation.” He continued to say Ju Ae’s emergence signals she “is going to be a part of the fourth generation of leadership.”

Madden said Kim is trying to attach weapons he developed to the fourth generation of leadership, passing down his legacy of refining the ICBMs he launched last year.

If not to signal Kim has a successor, Jong-Dae Shin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said, North Korea is trying to gain attention of the world by presenting the images of the girl and the missiles.

“The greatest effect” North Korea made by showing Ju Ae at military events was “attracting foreign and domestic attention,” Shin said.

Internationally, North Korea is “being forgotten” amid the war in Ukraine and U.S.-China competition, Shin told VOA Korean. Domestically, the regime wants to brush up its image with “high-tech science” used to develop ICBMs to demonstrate its military prowess that would give hope to young generations as “North Korea has nothing to show for” itself economically, Shin added.

Hereditary successor

Kim introduced Ju Ae to the public on Nov. 18, a little girl standing in front of a gigantic Hwasong-17 ICBM at a launch site. North Korea said its strategic forces successfully test-fired a new type of ICBM under the supervision of Kim.

She emerged again on New Year’s Day touring a ballistic missile factory holding her father’s hand.

Ju Ae has now made five public appearances, fueling speculation that Kim is positioning her to be his heir apparent.

Seong-Chang Cheong, director at the Sejong Institute’s Department of Reunification Strategy Studies, said referencing Ju Ae as Kim’s “beloved” and “respected” daughter by the state media indicates Kim has decided to make the youngster his successor.

“These expressions are used to describe current supreme leader Kim Jong Un,” Cheong said. “Using such words to refer to Ju Ae means she is already decided as the next leader.”

Cheong said Kim’s father had introduced him as his successor to his close aides attending Kim’s eighth birthday party while people sang Footsteps, a song about Kim following the path of his father while they are "marching" after Kim into "a brilliant future." Cheong said he heard about the event from Kim Jong Un’s uncle in Washington in March 2021.

Kim’s uncle Ri Kang, who was married to Goh Yong Suk, the sister of Kim’s mother, defected from North Korea with his wife and fled to the U.S. in 1998.

Ken Gause, a North Korean leadership expert and the director of Strategy, Policy, Plans, and Programs Division Special Projects at CNA, said it is still too early to tell whether Ju Ae is being primed to inherit Kim’s regime.

Ju Ae’s frequent public appearances at military events “may be in some ways tied to a succession process, but we do not have enough information now to make that call,” Gause said.

However, he continued, if Kim has in fact picked Ju Ae to be the fourth hereditary successor, he has chosen to start the preparation early to ensure the girl has the background to oversee the military if she becomes North Korea’s first female leader.

“The military is the one entity that really has to be brought on board more so than any other elements of the regime,” Gause said. “Given that Kim is in a situation where his only legitimacy exists around the nuclear program – because he can’t get the economy going – it makes sense that he would be tying her to the military in this way.”

North Korea has been suffering food shortages after its borders, closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 since January 2020, are not yet fully reopened. South Korea’s Unification Ministry said on Wednesday the food situation is worsening.

Little girl, big missiles

Won Gon Park, a professor of North Korean Studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, does not think Ju Ae was selected as a leader.

“The regime has not taken steps such as mystifying and idolizing a successor that normally precedes introducing a leader,” Park said. “North Korea is showing Kim Ju Ae to symbolically present a bright image of the subsequent generations.”

Whether Ju Ae was being raised up to be the next leader, Madden said there is the possibility that Kim is training her to hate the U.S. and South Korea that the regime considers as its adversaries.

“It’s definitely interesting to have a child next to all these things that she doesn’t necessarily know what the implication of an ICBM is for and what they actually can do,” he said. “She doesn’t know that that could kill millions of people potentially.”