Kim Thrusts Daughter Into Spotlight, Sparking Speculation About Succession

Kim Jong Un and his daughter are seen at a ground-breaking ceremony in Pyongyang on Saturday.

SEOUL — The appearance of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s daughter at official events recently has triggered speculation about the significance of her attendance, as Kim’s father and grandfather did not expose their children to the media when they were young.

The Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) distributed a photo of Kim Jong Un at a ground-breaking ceremony in Pyongyang on Saturday to mark the start of new district construction. Beside him was a young girl holding a shovel. The girl, who was described as his “beloved daughter,” is thought to be Kim Ju Ae, who was born in 2013.

Her first public appearance was in November last year at the launch of a Hwasong 17 intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). At a military parade on Feb. 8, she was seen standing on the podium and playfully touching her father’s cheek. She has accompanied him during military and civilian inspections, and her image appears on five of the eight new stamps released last month.

A view spreading among observers is that efforts have begun to create a personality cult for his daughter.

The Yomiuri Shimbu

Health concerns

Cheong Seong-chang, research fellow of the Center for North Korean Studies at the Sejong Institute in South Korea, said, “The process of making her a successor has begun.” Honorific words such as “noble” and “respectful” are reserved for those at the highest echelon in the party’s official newspaper Rodong Sinmun, according to Cheong. Even though Kim Jong Un is close to his sister Kim Yo Jong, the paper does not use such honorifics when her name appears in articles.

Kim Jong Un became North Korea’s third supreme leader after his father Kim Jong Il died in December 2011. It has been said that he was not adequately prepared for succession. For this reason, some analysts believe Kim Jong Un, who is believed to have health problems, is in a hurry to unveil his daughter as his successor.

Kim Jong Un made his first public appearance in September 2010, when he was appointed a military general. Kim Jong Il appeared in public for the first time when he was officially declared the next in line at a party congress in October 1980.

Both Kim Jong Un and Kim Jong Il had come of age when they made their first public appearances.

Citing North Korea’s patriarchal society, South Korean Unification Minister Kwon Young-se said Monday: “The question is whether [his daughter] can lead the military-centered regime. It is still a little early to consider her as a successor.”

Intelligence indicates Kim Jong Un has two other children and his eldest child is a son.

However, “It has never been confirmed [that he has a son],” according to Kwon. “If [his children] are all girls, the story might be a little different.”

South Korean government officials and experts generally agree that the daughter’s appearances are intended to secure further loyalty from the population.

In North Korea, Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, is said to have led an anti-Japanese movement on Mount Paektu on the border of China and North Korea during the Japanese colonial period, and the so-called Mount Paektu bloodline has become a symbol of hereditary rule.

Regarding the appearance of his daughter in the parade, Cha Du-Hyeogn, a principal fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said, “The intention is to justify the development of missiles as a weapon to protect the next generation, including his daughter.”

Food shortages

North Korea launched ICBMs and other missiles last month and is stepping up provocations. However, the food situation in the isolated country is deteriorating.

By drawing attention to Kim’s daughter, North Korea may be trying to deflect attention from the worsening food situation and quell public unrest.

“A number of people have died of starvation in some areas of North Korea, and food shortages are serious,” a spokesman for South Korea’s Unification Ministry said on Feb. 20.

Yonhap News Agency has reported that dozens of people are starving to death every day, even in areas such as Kaesong in the southwest, which is considered to be relatively prosperous.

Kim reportedly ordered food prices to be halved, but problems have not abated, and he has ordered a switch to free rations.

North Korea’s agricultural and distribution systems were severely affected by movement restrictions following the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. Trade with China, which had been suspended amid the pandemic, has not recovered. Cold weather also appears to have taken a toll.

North Korean media often reports on a campaign by party officials to donate rice to people in the country.

This is believed to be a measure to make up for food shortages due to a breakdown in the country’s rationing system.

A South Korean government official told The Yomiuri Shimbun that people are starving to death outside Pyongyang.

North Korea recently told the U.N. World Food Program that it needs food aid, according to the South Korean Unification Ministry. The aid has not yet been provided because an agreement could not be reached on how to confirm the distribution of supplies.

Meanwhile, KCNA reported Monday that an enlarged plenary meeting of the Workers’ Party of Korea Central Committee began in Pyongyang on Sunday. Kim Jong Un attended the meeting, at which “urgent tasks” were discussed, according to the report.

Enlarged plenary meetings of the party’s Central Committee are usually held once or twice a year, and one was last held at the end of December. As it is unusual for another one to be held two months later, observers believe measures to combat food shortages were likely to be on the agenda.