South Korea views the young daughter of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as his likely successor

The preteen who was unveiled to the outside world a little more than a year ago has since accompanied her father to a slew of major public events

Kim Jong Un
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, second right, with his daughter and his wife Ri Sol Ju, left, attends a performance to celebrate the New Year in Pyongyang, North Korea, Sunday, Dec. 31, 2023.朝鮮通信社 (AP)

The young daughter of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is seen as her father’s likely heir apparent, South Korea’s spy agency said Thursday, its first such assessment on the preteen who was unveiled to the outside world a little more than a year ago.

There has been intense outside debate and speculation about her, reportedly about 10 years old and named Ju Ae, since she made her first public appearance in November 2022, when she watched a long-range missile test launch with her father.

The girl has since accompanied her father to a slew of major public events, with state media calling her Kim Jong Un’s “most beloved” or “respected” child and churning out footage and photos proving her rising political standing and closeness with her father.

A senior general knelt and whispered to her when she clapped while watching a military parade at a VIP observation stand in September. She was photographed standing in front of her father at one point during a visit to the air force headquarters in November, with both Kims wearing sunglasses and long leather jackets. In a New Year’s Eve celebration at a packed Pyongyang stadium Sunday, Kim Jong Un kissed her on the cheek and she did the same to her father.

Most of these scenes are something that had been unimaginable in North Korea, where Kim is the subject of a strong and loyal following that treats him like a god.

South Korea’s main spy agency, the National Intelligence Service, said Thursday that it sees Kim Ju Ae as her father’s likely successor, citing a comprehensive analysis of her public activities and the state protocols provided to her.

The NIS public affairs office told The Associated Press that it still considers all possibilities regarding the North’s power succession process because Kim is still young, has no major health issues, and has at least one other child. Kim turns 40 on Monday.

Earlier Thursday, lawmaker Youn Kun-Young cited the nominee for the NIS chief position, Cho Tae-yong, giving him the same assessment. In phone conversations with the AP, Youn, a member of parliament’s intelligence committee, said Cho’s written responses to his questions contained no other details about Kim Ju Ae.

The NIS has a spotty record in confirming developments in North Korea, one of the world’s most secretive nations. North Korea’s state media have yet to make any direct comments on the succession plan, including whether Kim Ju Ae has any siblings.

Du Hyeogn Cha, an analyst at Seoul’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said while the NIS currently sees a high possibility for Kim Ju Ae to be primed as her father’s successor, few can predict whether she would eventually become the North’s next leader. Cha added that Kim Ju Ae lacks political achievements that he said are essential to be formally anointed as the country’s future leader.

Analyst Cheong Seong-Chang at the private Sejong Institute in South Korea said that Kim Jong Un likely believes his daughter has the capacity and resolve to succeed him as leader. He said Kim Jong Un’s obesity appears so serious that “it won’t be surprising even if he collapses tomorrow.”

“By accompanying her father on major events, she’s like learning kingship and building a human network at a tender age,” Cheong said.

NIS and other South Korean officials earlier said it was premature to view Kim Ju Ae as her father’s heir, given Kim Jong Un’s relatively young age and North Korea’s Confucianism-influenced, male-nominated power ranking. They had said the girl’s repeated appearances were more likely meant to shore up public support for Kim’s ruling family and his plan to hand over his power to one of his children.

Since its foundation in 1948, North Korea has been successively ruled by male members of the Kim family. Kim Jong Un inherited power upon his father Kim Jong Il’s death in late 2011. Kim Jong Il took over power after his father and state founder Kim Il Sung died in 1994.

The name of Ju Ae matched what retired NBA star Dennis Rodman called Kim’s baby daughter, whom he said he saw and held during a trip to Pyongyang in 2013. The NIS told lawmakers last year that Kim Ju Ae has an older brother and a younger sibling whose gender has not been made public.

Cheong, the expert, called the NIS intelligence on the older brother inaccurate, though he agrees that Kim Ju Ae has a younger sibling.

Revealing the young Kim Ju Ae came as a huge surprise to foreign experts because neither Kim Jong Un nor Kim Jong Il had been mentioned in North Korean state media before they became adults.

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