Editor's Note

It has been reported that Kim Ju Ae, who had been speculated to be the heir by North Korea watchers apparent following her appearance at the military banquet marking the 75th founding anniversary of the Korean People’s Army, was not present at the latest celebration of the 70th anniversary of the Korean armistice. Cheong Seong-Chang, a Director of Reunification Strategy Studies at the Sejong Institute, claims that the DPRK media’s active promotion of Kim Ju Ae since 2022 indicates that she has been nominated as the successor to Kim Jong Un. Considering that Kim Jong Un himself was reportedly announced as the successor when he was eight years old, Cheong argues that Kim Jong Un is exposing Kim Ju Ae at an early age to establish a support base and prepare stable power transfer, should Kim Jong Un unexpectedly perish.

On November 19th, 2022, North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun (official newspaper of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea) published photographs of Kim Jong Un and his daughter Kim Ju Ae observing the test launch of the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), “Hwaseongpho-17.” Additionally, on the 27th of the same month, commemorative photos of the two standing with officials involved in the test launch of the Hwaseongpho-17 ICBM were released.


On January 1st, 2023, North Korea’s Korean Central Television (KCTV) showed Kim Jong Un and Kim Ju Ae inspecting missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. On February 8th, photos were released of the two visiting a North Korean military officer’s residence and attending a commemorative event for the 75th anniversary of the military’s establishment. On the following day, photos and videos of Kim Ju Ae participating in a military parade held the previous day were published.


Even after that, North Korea’s propaganda efforts to promote Kim Ju Ae continued, and from November 2022 to May 2023, North Korea released a total of 14 sets of photos showing Kim Jong Un and Kim Ju Ae together. Among these, 11 instances showed Kim Ju Ae in military-related settings, 2 were related to sports events, and 1 was related to the economy.


North Korea’s active promotion of Kim Ju Ae’s presence since 2022 indicates that she has been nominated as a potential successor to Kim Jong Un. Relatedly, it is worth paying particular attention to the titles North Korean media uses for Kim Ju Ae, her status in various official events, and the fact that Kim Jong Un himself was designated as successor to Kim Jong Il when he was only 8 years old.


On November 27th of last year, an article in the Rodong Sinmun used the expression “jongwihasin (or respected)” to refer to Kim Ju Ae. Historically, this term has only been used to describe Kim Il Sung, his wife Kim Jong Suk, Kim Jong Il, and Kim Jong Un. Therefore, using this term for Kim Ju Ae, which has historically been reserved for the highest leaders and Kim Il Sung’s wife, suggests her potential future role as a leader of North Korea. Another article from Rodong Sinmun on the same day used the expression that Kim Jong Un regards Kim Ju Ae as the “most beloved daughter.” If Kim Jong Un has multiple children, it is natural for the child he “loves” the most to become his successor.


Many experts raise the question of whether it is necessary for Kim Jong Un to designate her as a successor already, considering that Kim Ju Ae is only around 10 years old. However, it is important to note the distinction between the terms “nomination” and “official designation.” Due to Kim Ju Ae’s young age, Kim Jong Un cannot officially designate her as a successor and entrust her with important responsibilities; however, Kim Jong Un can initiate succession training by clearly conveying to his inner circle and the public that Kim Ju Ae will become his successor in the future.


According to a testimony given by Kim Jong Un’s aunt and uncle in Washington, D.C. in March 2021, a tribute song for the heir titled “Footsteps” was performed for the first time on Kim Jong Un’s 8th birthday (1992, when Kim Jong Il turned 50). From then on, Kim Jong Il began telling his inner circle, “[Kim] Jong Un will be my successor.”


In response to Kim Jong Un’s uncle’s comment that it might be too early to announce Kim Jong Un as a successor, Kim Jong Il said, “[Doing so is okay] because he resembles me.” Just as Kim Jong Il had “nominated” Kim Jong Un as his successor at 8 years old, it is speculated that Kim Jong Un has similarly “nominated” Kim Ju Ae, who is currently estimated to be around 10 years old.


Kim Jong Il revealed such decision to nominate Kim Jong Un as his successor only to a small group of key aides who attended banquets, even high-ranking officials like Hwang Jang-yop, the former secretary of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party, were unaware of the nomination until he defected to South Korea in 1997. This is why many experts had made false assumptions that Kim Jong Il will appoint his eldest son, Kim Jong-nam, as his successor until the “official designation” of Kim Jong Un was revealed in early 2009.


Kim Jong Il has never given public speeches nor did he reveal his wife through propaganda channels. On the other hand, Kim Jong Un enjoys public speaking, and he has displayed a completely different political style from Kim Jong Il by revealing his wife, Ri Sol Ju, shortly after assuming power.


From Kim Jong Un’s perspective, early designation and public announcement of a successor may have more benefits than drawbacks. Considering his past experiences, the more people who know that Kim Ju Ae has been designated as a successor, the less room there is for baseless speculations about succession issues. Additionally, if Kim Ju Ae accompanies Kim Jong Un frequently in military-related activities and establishes a strong support base within the military, she could safely establish herself as the next state leader even if Kim Jong Un were to perish unexpectedly and she were to inherit power at a young age.


Some experts view the possibility of Kim Ju Ae becoming North Korea’s next leader very negatively, focusing solely on the fact that she is a female. However, both the former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, also known as the “Iron Lady,” and the longest-serving Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, are women.


North Korea is a socialist state and a “de facto monarchy.” Throughout its history, power has been passed from Kim Il Sung to his son Kim Jong Il, and then to his grandson Kim Jong Un. However, if Kim Jong Un either has no sons or if they lack the leadership qualities, he would have had to consider alternative options. Until now, it has been speculated that Kim Jong Un has a son older than Kim Ju Ae. However, based on the testimonies of several foreigners who have directly met Kim Jong Un and his family in Pyongyang as well as intelligence information, the Kim Ju Ae most likely does not have an older brother.


On media, Kim Ju Ae seems to possess an exceptional political ambition at a young age, a deep interest in the military, and a strong commitment to carry on his father’s plans. Therefore, considering these factors, it is highly likely that Kim Ju Ae, whom Kim Jong Un regards as his “most beloved child,” could become the successor or future leader of North Korea in the coming decades.



Cheong Seong-Chang, Ph.D., is the Director of the Department of Reunification Strategy Studies at the Sejong Institute.



Typeset by Jisoo Park , Research Associate
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