With his young daughter at this side at two splashy military events this week, Kim Jong Un told the world two things – the Kim family will rule North Korea for another generation and it will have the nuclear weapons to make sure no one can challenge that.
The girl – believed to be Kim’s second child, Ju Ae, and around 9 years old – joined the North Korean leader and his wife at a glitzy banquet at a Pyongyang military barracks on Tuesday night.
A day later she looked on as at least 11 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) were paraded through KIm Il Sung Square in the North Korean capital.
“By ostentatiously including his wife and daughter, Kim wants observers at home and abroad to see his family dynasty and the North Korean military as irrevocably linked,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.
Meet the Kims
The Kim family’s rule in North Korea stretches back to 1948, when Kim Il Sung came to power in the aftermath of World War II.
When Kim Il Sung died in 1994, his son Kim Jong Il took control – and when Kim Jong Il died, in December 2011, his son Kim Jong Un came to power.
Western observers believe Kim Jong Un has three children and that Ju Ae is his middle child, though this can’t be verified by anyone outside North Korea.
North Korean media reports of this week’s military events described Ju Ae as Kim’s “respected” and “beloved” child.
American basketball star Dennis Rodman revealed Kim had a baby called Ju Ae when he visited Pyongyang in 2013, telling The Guardian afterward, “I held their baby Ju Ae and spoke with (Kim’s wife) as well.”
The age of the baby Rodman held appears to fit the age of the girl at this week’s events.
Isn’t it a bit early for a successor?
There is historical precedent for Kim to identify his successor so early on, because that’s what his father, Kim Jong Il, did with him, said Cheong Seong-chang, a senior analyst at the Sejong Institute in South Korea.
“It is known that Kim Jong Il told his aides that Kim Jong Un would be his successor while performing a song called ‘Footsteps’ to praise Kim Jong Un on his 8th birthday,” Cheong said. However, he added that the outside world had not been aware of this at the time.
“Rumors and speculations circulated for a long time that Kim Jong Il’s first son, Kim Jong Nam, or second son, Kim Jong Chol, would be the successor,” Cheong said.
When did Kim’s daughter take the spotlight?
Speculation that Ju Ae would be Kim’s successor emerged last November when state media released pictures of her and Kim inspecting a North Korean ballistic missile before a test launch.
South Korean lawmaker and secretary of the National Intelligence Service Yoo Sang-bum said after that launch the girl was thought to be Ju Ae.
North Korean state media published a story later that month with pictures of Kim and his daughter, describing her as his “most beloved” child, Cheong said.
Pictures in North Korean media also showed the girl visiting a missile factory with her father near the end of 2022.
The case for succession …
Cheong said he’s convinced the girl’s appearance at recent events and how she is referred to in state-run media show she is being primed to succeed her father.
The state-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper mentions the girl before Kim’s wife in stories and uses the adjectives “beloved” and “respected” to convey on her a special status, he said.
“The beginning of this personality cult for Kim Ju Ae suggests that, even though she has not yet (been given) the status of an official successor … she is de facto designated successor,” Cheong said.
He added that if the girl is to succeed her father, she would need the support of the military.
Putting her front and center at military events from a young age will allow her to establish credibility with the military over time, Cheong said.
… Or is this just a PR stunt?
Other observers aren’t convinced.
Her recent appearances may simply be a way to redirect the world’s attention back to Pyongyang’s military after audience fatigue set in following a year of record missile testing, said Chun In-bum, a retired South Korean general.
“I think the North Koreans have either stumbled upon or have figured out that this is one way of getting international attention. And so with all the interest that is accumulating, they’re enjoying themselves,” he said.
“Throughout their seven-decade history, their successors have always been a mystery to us. Why would they change their mode of operation now? So if I were to bet $5, I would say she is not the successor,” Chun said.
And what about those missiles?
While there’s still plenty of debate about Ju Ae, there’s little doubt about her father’s wish to have enough military might to keep his family in power.
The display of at least 11 Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) on Wednesday night shows the North Korean military is following through on Kim’s call at the end of 2022 for an “exponential increase” in his country’s nuclear arsenal in response to what he claims are threats from South Korea and the United States.
Ankit Panda, a nuclear policy expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said on social media that if each of those missiles were equipped with multiple nuclear warheads, they could represent enough volume to overwhelm US ballistic missile defenses.
Solid fuel vs. liquid fuel
Following the Hwasong-17s in Wednesday night’s parade were examples of what analysts believe could be a solid-fueled ICBM, a step up in technology from the liquid-fueled Hwasong-17.
Liquid-fueled missiles take longer to prepare for launch; solid-fueled missiles are ready to go on a moment’s notice.
“If this is the case, it gives (North Korea) more mobility, flexibility, lethality, and so forth,” said Chun, the former South Korean general.
Solid-fueled missiles on mobile launchers would give the Kim regime “the ability to attack an opponent with very, very little prior warning,” Chun said. “It’s a really scary scenario.”
CNN’s Yoonjung Seo and Paula Hancocks contributed to this report.