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A year ago, the daughter of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un made her inaugural public appearance, accompanying her father as they jointly inspected the launch of the intercontinental ballistic missile Hwasong-17. Kim Ju Ae, described as being 10 or 11 years old in 2023, has been visible on 19 occasions since November 2022, consistently by her father’s side. North Korean media commonly refers to her as the “Beloved Child” or the “Respected Child.”
Initially, South Korean officials were skeptical about her potential as Kim’s heir, questioning the idea that she could be next in line. However, a shift in perspective has occurred. The National Intelligence Service (NIS) believed that Kim, at 39 in 2023, is too young and healthy to appoint a successor prematurely.
However, there were some events that raised doubts. At a foreign media event on December 12, NIS pointed out the “escalating level of protocol” observed in the girl’s recent appearances. NIS highlighted instances such as her visits to the Naval Command in August and the Air Force Command on November 30, where commanders and officers saluted her, indicating a potential shift in her status within the regime. Also, during North Korea’s Founding Day military parade on September 9. Park Jong Chon, a close associate of Kim and a prominent North Korean military leader, was observed kneeling and whispering into Ju Ae’s ears.
In recent months, Kim Ju Ae has seen a rise in prominence. Following the successful launch of North Korea’s first spy satellite on November 21, she was elevated to the title of “Morning Star General.” This title, previously associated with her great-grandfather Kim Il Sung and later her father, signifies a significant role within the regime. Kim Jong Un became “Morning Star General” when he was presented as heir by Kim Jong-Il, his father and the country’s dictator.
In line with her new title, Ju Ae has undergone a visual transformation, adopting a more mature hairstyle similar to that of her mother, Ri Sol Ju. A photo released on December 1 depicts Ju Ae in the foreground for the first time, with her father standing behind her in matching leather jackets and sunglasses during a visit to the North Korean air force headquarters.
Researchers believe that the regime’s early succession planning is an attempt to ensure stability in the face of internal challenges. North Korea has several difficulties such as embassy withdrawals, budget constraints, and a chronic food shortage. Also, the influence of the Korean Wave culture, with North Koreans increasingly exposed to K-dramas and K-pop, can potentially shift loyalties away from the regime.
While some analysts doubted Ju Ae’s role as Kim’s successor, there is a possibility of her being a decoy while Kim grooms his son. Kim’s other children have not been seen publicly, and there are ongoing efforts to confirm the existence of a son.
But the big question is how easy it will be for Kim Jung-un to legitimise his daughter’s succession in a heavily patriarchal society. This will involve changing both society and the state, while the idea of the Kim dynasty remains intact.
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