North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was accompanied by his young daughter Kim Ju Ae at several public events, including the opening of a greenhouse and a training exercise by special forces paratroopers, on Mar. 15. The last time his daughter attended a public event was on Military Foundation Day, on Feb. 8.

The Korean Central News Agency did not specifically mention that Ju Ae had attended the event, as it did for key officials such as her father or Premier Kim Tok-hun. But it did print photos of father and daughter while mentioning that “the great persons of guidance, together with cadres of the Party, the government and the military, went round the farm.”

News media in South Korea and abroad subsequently quoted North Korean experts as saying that “the word hyangdo [translated here as ‘guidance’] has typically been used about the supreme leader and his heirs” and reported that the choice of words “demonstrates that Kim Ju Ae has definitely become a potential heir.”

One year and four months have already passed since Kim Ju Ae was first presented to the North Korean public. In that time, a large number of experts and news outlets both in Korea and overseas have aired speculation that she may be Kim Jong Un’s heir in light of the eye-popping titles and treatment she has been given.

But my opinion is that while we should remain open to that possibility, the evidence for deeming Ju Ae the heir remains highly insufficient in light of structural and fundamental factors such as age, titles, customs, culture and institutions. As such, I still think it is far too soon to jump to any conclusions.

Instead, I continue to emphasize the likelihood that Kim Ju Ae is supposed to serve two concurrent roles that I compare to the cinematic terms “cameo” and “intro.” She serves as a “cameo” to draw the attention of domestic and foreign audiences to Kim’s resolution to maintain a nuclear arsenal and his interest in the safety of future generations, and as an “intro” to instill in North Korean society a belief in the everlasting rule of what is called the “Mt. Paektu bloodline,” referring to the Kim dynasty.

The South Korean government’s official assessment

As the debate over Kim Ju Ae’s status heated up at the beginning of this year, the South Korean National Intelligence Service (NIS) took the unusual step of submitting a written response to the National Assembly’s Intelligence Committee on Jan. 2 in an attempt to restore calm. “Kim Ju Ae appears to be a likely heir, at least for the present, given her appearances and the treatment she is receiving. But since Kim Jong Un is still young, with no major health issues, and because there are many variables, we are watching the situation closely while keeping open all possibilities,” the NIS said in that document.

This circumspect and open-minded attitude adopted by the South Korean government’s highest intelligence agency is natural and commendable. Even assuming that there are noticeable signs that Kim Ju Ae may be the assumed heir, the question of naming an heir is a lengthy process, and we should therefore avoid any hasty assumptions. That process would involve five or six separate stages, including deliberation and decision, public and private preparations for succession, internal naming of the heir and involvement in policy-making, official declaration of the heir, joint rule, and handover of power.

Currently, we are only at the beginning of the first stage of that process, and numerous variables are still ahead of us.

And so when the claim is made in certain quarters that Kim Ju Ae has been named heir, I tend to regard that not as a multifaceted, comprehensive assessment that connects the dots to arrive at the whole, but rather as a hot take that reads way too much into a few scattered points of data.

My personal assessment

At the time of Kim Ju Ae’s first appearance, I wrote a column in which I argued that (1) Kim Jong Un had staged the whole event, (2) Kim Ju Ae’s role was that of a “cameo” or “intro,” and (3) the critical issue was not the daughter, but the provocations involving the illegal development of long-range strategic missiles. I also counseled the international community to focus on tightening sanctions on North Korea and warned that focusing on the daughter would amount to falling for Kim Jong Un’s scheme.

In this article, we will review the trends witnessed over the past year and four months, which I hope will help readers draw their own conclusions. But I should also make clear in advance that this analysis will be based solely on information in the public record, deductions and my personal experience, since I am not in a position to stumble across a “smoking gun.” While I cannot guarantee that my arguments are correct, I do think they will provide valuable food for thought.

Signs that Kim Ju Ae may be the heir apparent

A considerable number of experts offer three distinct reasons for regarding Kim Ju Ae as the intended heir: her public appearances, the titles and honorifics used for her, and the respectful treatment she enjoys (suggesting a cult of personality).

(1) Public appearances

Most of Kim Ju Ae’s public appearances (22 of 26 thus far) involve accompanying her father on visits to military sites, such as an ICBM test site. She is gradually paying more visits to sites connected to the economy. In the future, she is likely to visit revolutionary battlefields on Mt. Paektu and attend events linked to the cult of personality so as to reinforce her image as part of the Mt. Paektu bloodline.*

(2) Titles and honorifics

The titles and honorifics given to Kim Ju Ae have gradually been elevated, from “beloved” to “respected” and then to “precious.” In addition, there are also reports that she is being described by the terms “morning star” and “general,” which are generally reserved for the supreme leader and his heirs, in unconfirmed lecture materials being used inside North Korea. (One such document reportedly said, “The future of our status as a space power will be further illuminated by the lady general, the morning star of Joseon.”)

missile, weapons, satellite, war, daughter, son, kim jong un
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, accompanied by his daughter Kim Ju-ae, led a field tour of an “important military vehicle production plant,” according to Rodong Sinmun on Jan. 5. The newspaper also unveiled a launch pad vehicle (TEL) carrying a cylindrical tube for the Hwasong-18, a new solid-fueled intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). (Rodong Sinmun-News1)

Furthermore, North Korean official coverage of the ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Kangdong Greenhouse Farm on Mar. 15 referred to the two Kims as “great persons of guidance.” But it is also possible that such expressions are designed to express respect for the Mt. Paektu bloodline or to pique interest in the leadership both at home and abroad.

Some points to bear in mind in regard to the greenhouse visit are that (1) Kim Ju Ae was not mentioned separately as in the past, (2) the title was used in the plural and not the singular, and (3) only related photographs were printed. And in contrast with coverage of the two Kims’ attendance at the greenhouse ground-breaking, Kim Ju Ae was not mentioned either directly or indirectly in an article about their attendance at a training session for paratroopers from the special forces.

(3) Respectful treatment

A remarkable cult of personality is said to be forming around Kim Ju Ae. She had a seat of honor at a military parade on Military Foundation Day in February 2023, and new slogans have been coined about “Kim Ju Ae’s white horse” and “defend Kim Jong Un to the death, protect the Mt. Paektu bloodline to the death.”

At a military parade for North Korea’s founding anniversary in September, Park Jong-chon, the number one figure in the North Korean military, was witnessed kneeling down to speak to Kim Ju Ae. In November, a commemorative stamp bearing the photograph of Kim Jong Un and Kim Ju Ae was issued on the first anniversary of the successful launch of the Hwasong-17 missiles, which is where Kim Ju Ae made her first appearance. The day of the missile launch was also designated as a public holiday.

That’s not all. When the two Kims visited the North Korean Air Force Command in November, the daughter shook hands with the military leaders and received their salutes even before her father. When the Rodong Sinmun covered Kim Jong Un’s visit to a factory of missile transporter vehicles on Jan. 5, it began the report by devoting a separate line to the title of Kim’s daughter before mentioning senior party officials such as Kim Yo Jong and Jo Yong Won.

 (4) Related laws and institutions

Kim Ju Ae is a figure who not only fits within the Ten Principles for the Establishment of a Monolithic Ideological System, which states that leadership must be passed down to members of the Mt. Paektu bloodline, but also to the theories of succession I delineate below. In neither place is any distinction made between men and women.

(5) Miscellaneous

While some have claimed that Kim Jong Il selected Kim Jong Un to be his heir at the age of eight, that is unpersuasive because it probably overemphasizes affectionate remarks the senior Kim made about his son. That may also represent an arbitrary and selective reading of Kim Jong Il’s comparison of his two younger sons (“Jong Un looks exactly like me, while Jong Chul is too girly”) and of the assessment of Kenji Fujimoto, Kim Jong Il’s personal chef who spent time with Kim Jong Un in his childhood (“I concluded that Jong Un would be the heir”).

In regard to frequent speculation in the press about Kim Jong Un’s poor health, it is true that Kim is severely obese, weighing more than 140 kilograms, and that he has a family history of cardiovascular disease. But considering his youth (40 years old), the medical program dedicated to keeping him healthy, and his active lifestyle, he is unlikely to face any serious problems for the time being.

Evidence indicating she isn’t the successor

The phenomena we looked at earlier that support the theory that Kim Ju Ae was named successor could all be staged in the “theater state” that is North Korea if the authorities so choose. However, the issues we will examine — the new first secretary position, Kim Ju Ae’s youth, North Korea’s culture and customs, and the family name of the leader who would come after her — are more structural and elemental.

  1. The new position of first secretary

Kim Jong Un has been preparing for what comes after him, creating the new position of first secretary (“proxy general secretary”) at the Eighth Party Congress in January 2021. Some people view the first secretary position as a successor, but it is merely a proxy position for the general secretary.

Kim does not need to name his 10-year-old daughter the nation’s number two and successor even as he creates apparatuses in preparation for war. Efforts to idolize her remain in the early stages, too.

The first secretary position has remained open because the Eighth Party Congress changed the party rules so that the five-person presidium of the politburo — which can call a meeting at any time — could discuss and name appointments for the first secretary position. That is to say, while the general secretary is elected at the party congress every five years, rendering the quick selection of a successor difficult, the presidium could name a first secretary at any time.

Allow me to stress this again. The first secretary position was created so that somebody could play the role of proxy for Kim Jong Un in a contingency. To be more specific, it was likely made for Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, his political and emotional partner and a “libero” who manages the so-called Mount Paektu Bloodline from behind the scenes.

From this perspective, the potential of a power struggle between Kim Yo Yong on the one hand and Ri Sol Ju and Kim Ju Ae on the other borders on fiction, and it is highly likely that the propping up of Kim Ju Ae is taking place under Kim Yo Jong’s direction.

  1. Kim Ju Ae’s youth

Kim Ju Ae was born in 2013. This is when a would-be successor would associate with their peers, build their character and receive royal education behind the scenes. If not, the successor might encounter various psychological impediments as they grow, including narcissism, and even if they succeed in power, they will likely become cruel dictators. Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un also began their education to become successors when they were young men after graduating from university.

  1. Method of appearance

Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un were active behind closed doors at first. After they were named successor, the state made their activities public. In contrast, Kim Ju Ae’s identity was revealed as soon as she appeared on the scene with the title of her father’s “most beloved.” Moreover, her puerile appearance was that of an ordinary little girl rather than a successor. If she was appearing as a successor, wouldn’t she have dressed, coiffured and acted more like an adult?

  1. Excessive direction

Kim Ju Ae’s reading of a text on the podium (she is too young to know what she is reading), her watching of a full football match (she is not old enough to like football), her uncomfortable walking in high heels (she looked pathetic), and her appearance with a leather coat, sunglasses and a perm (probably the only little girl in the world so adorned) were unbecoming of a 10-year-old girl.

daughter, son, succession, kim jong un, wife
Kim Jong Un was accompanied by his wife and daughter at a banquet celebrating the founding of the DPRK's military on Feb. 7, 2023, according to state-run media. (Rodong Sinmun-News1)

In particular, excessive actions like her stroking her father’s cheek or kissing or hugging him during official appearances, or Pak Chong Chon — the military’s No. 1 — getting down on his knee to talk with her could be seen as behavior indicating her status as successor, but one gets the feeling they are over-the-top.

  1. Culture and customs

North Korea is a patriarchal culture based on feudal Confucianism. We could call it a sort of monarchy. Some people say female members of the Mount Paektu Bloodline are an exception. However, does Kim Jong Un have to take that risk? In particular, in a nation engaged in military adventurism based on nuclear weapons, women are better suited to the first lady position than as the leader.

  1. Family name of the fifth leader

Let’s say Kim Ju Ae - in a surprise move - becomes North Korea’s fourth leader. However, this would have a fatal flaw, namely, that it would inevitably spell the end of the Mt. Paektu Bloodline centered on the Kim clan: Kim Ju Ae’s child would take his/her father's last name. Such a development contradicts the “Ten Principles for the Establishment of a Monolithic Ideological System,” which calls for passing down leadership along the Mt. Paektu Bloodline.

  1. Divide in power

Naming a successor amounts to dividing the unitary loyalty toward the supreme leader into two. Would 40-year-old Kim Jong Un begin allowing his authority to leak, exposing a fatal handicap? Party secretary Hwang Jang-yop, who defected to the South in 1996, once said that Kim Il Sung, staring down his 80th year in the late 1980s, regretted having overturned authority to Kim Jong Il too early.

  1. Other issues

North Korea has yet to officially call Kim Jong Un’s daughter by her name. After calling her “most beloved,” they simply call her “child” without revealing a title or name. This is evidence of the authorities’ wait-and-see approach.

Meanwhile, considering how North Korea used the plural term “great persons of guidance” and how defectors have testified that the country researched monarchies worldwide during the Kim Jong Il era, the government may be benchmarking the Japanese and British royal systems to develop its own succession system.

Conclusions and how we should respond

As we have seen so far, the theory that Kim Ju Ae has been named successor seems plausible — to some extent — if seen merely from the outside, including her title and treatment. However, given a myriad of factors - the limits placed on her by her youth and gender; the creation and operation of a new first secretary position should something befall Kim Jong Un; the existence of Kim’s other children; the issue of the last name of a fifth-generation leader; and the vetting of Kim Ju Ae’s temperament and capacity as a leader - it is too early to conclude that the young girl has been designated her father’s successor.

On the other hand, looking at trends so far, Kim Ju Ae’s role strongly resembles a cameo, intro, or an ad balloon. That is to say, we can assume North Korea put Kim Ju Ae on stage to 1) bolster domestic and international interest in pending issues like the country’s nuclear and missile programs; 2) distract from the strengthening of international sanctions; 3) create an atmosphere in which the perpetual succession of the Mt. Paekdu Bloodline is taken for granted; 4) highlight Kim Jong Un’s love for the future generations; and 5) to prevent a potential U.S. surgical strike to decapitate the regime. In a nutshell, Kim Jong Un is only using his young daughter for his own needs.

This scheme might succeed in highlighting the regime’s “refusal to give up its nuclear weapons” or its “concern for the future generations” in the short term. However, in the long term, it’s clearly a gamble that could generate problems like lessening the mystery around the “royal family” and revealing the truth behind royal births, as well as encouraging speculation over the succession issue.

Accordingly, while leaving the possibility of Kim Ju Ae being the successor open, we must prepare for several scenarios regarding the succession issue under a “higher order” understanding that considers countless variables and a lot of time. More fundamentally, we must undertake a multi-faceted movement to awaken North Korea’s people about the abnormal nature of the country’s hereditary succession and the tangible and intangible harm that results from it.

*The four non-military events attended by Kim Ju Ae were the groundbreaking ceremony for a new housing development in the Sopho area of Pyongyang in February 2023; a New Year’s concert in December 2023; a visit to the Kwangchon Chicken Farm in Hwangju County, North Hwanghae Province, in January 2024; and the ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Kangdong Greenhouse Farm in March 2024

Translated by David Carruth and David Black. Edited by Robert Lauler.

Views expressed in this guest column do not necessarily reflect those of Daily NK. Please send any comments or questions about this article to

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