The young daughter of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is seen as his likely heir apparent, South Korea’s spy agency said in its first such assessment of 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 the girl, who is 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’s “most beloved” or “respected” child and churning out video 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 kissed her on the cheek and she did the same to her father.
Most of these scenes were once 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 Ju Ae as her father’s likely successor, citing a comprehensive analysis of her public activities and the state protocols granted her.
The public affairs office of spy agency NIS told the Associated Press that it is still considering 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 said the nominee for the NIS’ chief position, Cho Tae-yong, had given him that assessment. In phone conversations with the AP, Youn, a member of the parliamentary intelligence committee, said Cho’s written responses to his questions contained no other details about 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 Ju Ae has any siblings.
Du Hyeogn Cha, an analyst at Seoul’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies, said that while the NIS currently sees a high possibility of Ju Ae getting primed to become her father’s successor, few can predict whether she would eventually become the North’s next leader. Cha added that Ju Ae lacks political achievements that he said are essential to be formally anointed as the country’s future leader.
Cheong Seong-Chang, an analyst at the private Sejong Institute in South Korea, said that Kim likely believes his daughter has the capacity and resolve to succeed him as leader. He said Kim’s obesity appears so serious that “it won’t be surprising even if he collapses tomorrow.”
“By accompanying her father on major events, it’s like she’s learning kingship and building a human network at a tender age,” Cheong said.
NIS and officials from other parts of South Korea’s government had earlier said it was premature to view Ju Ae as her father’s heir, given Kim’s relatively young age and North Korea’s Confucianism-influenced, male-dominated power structure. They had said the girl’s repeated appearances were more likely meant to shore up public support for Kim’s family and his plan to one day hand power over 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.
Ju Ae is the child whom retired NBA star Dennis Rodman apparently saw during a trip to Pyongyang in 2013; he called her Kim’s baby daughter and said he held her. The NIS told lawmakers in a private briefing last year that Ju Ae has an older brother and a younger sibling whose gender the agency hadn’t confirmed.
The NIS said at the time that Ju Ae had never been enrolled in an official education facility and was being home-schooled in Pyongyang, according to some of the lawmakers who attended the briefing.
Cheong, the Sejong Institute analyst, called the NIS intelligence on the older brother inaccurate, though he agrees that Ju Ae has a younger sibling.
Having Ju Ae appear in public came as a big surprise to foreign experts because neither Kim Jong Un nor Kim Jong Il were mentioned in North Korean state media before they became adults.