North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un and his daughter Kim Ju-ae (KCNA/Reuters)
For more than six months, Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea, has offered the world unprecedented insight into his private life. The first set of photos revealed a girl with a ponytail and red shoes walking hand in hand with Kim around a Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile. She is later seen staring into his eyes at a celebration for weapons scientists and tenderly patting him on the shoulder at a military parade. On May 16, the two wore matching lab coats while inspecting a suspected spy satellite.
State media have broadcast images of father and daughter more than a dozen times since November, with rehearsed choreography, from their curls to their gloves. Analysts consider them confirmation of parentage, although none of the photos can be independently verified. The country has been in near-total lockdown since the pandemic began. But the regime’s propaganda machine has been kept busy churning out “sajin jeongchi,” or photo politics, prompting rumors, questions, and reports.
Now that routine missile tests in the country aren’t generating the headlines he craves, Kim appears to be tapping into his daughter’s global star power. “Chairman Kim is always hungry for attention, but he has been losing the limelight,” said Kim Young-soo, who heads the North Korea Research Institute, referring to the last time the leader dominated international media. , during 2018 and 2019 meetings with President Donald Trump. The new photos with his daughter distract attention from Kim Jong-un, who is failing to provide adequate food and energy for his people, and, according to Soo Kim of the Lowy Institute, prevent the international community from focusing on a long-term solution to the state’s nuclear capabilities.
What do we know about this girl? According to South Korean intelligence, her name is Ju-ae, she is about 10 years old, she is probably the middle daughter of the leader, and when she was a baby she was once held in the arms of American basketball star Dennis Rodman . Most everything else is speculation. A favorite debate question among North Korean analysts is: Is she the natural heir?
Some indications point to yes. The regime has long been obsessed with portraits as part of the personality cult woven around every North Korean leader. Ju-ae’s intimate photos with Kim could be considered an official endorsement. A successor, or successor, should also be the embodiment of her predecessor, with an expert handle on the regime’s militaristic ideology, something the photos seem to illustrate.
Father and daughter at a Hwasong-18 intercontinental ballistic missile test (KCNA/Reuters)
Ju-ae’s hereditary claim is also bolstered by decades of “embellished stories about the honorable revolutionary blood that runs through the family’s veins,” as a 1988 RAND report put it on the legitimacy of her grandfather Kim Jong-il. In February, state television emphasized her direct link to the Paektu lineage, referring to the myth that her grandfather was born on the highest mountain on the Korean peninsula, with images of a white horse belonging to the “beloved” leader’s son State media had already released photos of Kim Jong-un riding a white horse around Mount Paektu. Finally, Radio Free Asia recently reported that North Koreans called Ju-ae have been called upon to change their names; the same demand was made of people who shared the names of previous leaders.
Others point out that Ju-ae has no chance of succession. In a country of hidden agendas, current and historical events foreshadow the young woman’s purpose and destiny. Ultimately, this logic suggests that the entrenched patriarchal traditions and gender inequality of the country and the dynasty will prove unshakeable.
From the country’s founder, Kim Il-sung, to Kim Jong-il and now Kim Jong-un, power in North Korea has been deliberately passed down from father to son. Over three generations, each man has been declared supreme leader and ruled by a uniquely North Korean formula centered on him, the “suryong.” The state ideology, called “juche”, mixes socialism and Confucianism, a hierarchical system that places men above women and limits the activities of the latter. In the socialist theory of the great family in North Korea, society is an organism made up of “the ‘suryong’ (the great leader) as the nucleus, surrounded by the party and the people, each with an inseparable relationship within a community united by a common destiny,” Kim Won-hong wrote in a 2014 report, “North Korean Women: A Closer Look at Everyday Life.” The nucleus, of course, is the head of the family, the patriarch.
For hundreds of years, Korean custom has designated the eldest son as heir; Kim Jong-un, the youngest son, was appointed only after his father rejected his two brothers. The odds are not in Ju-ae’s favor, as according to South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, Kim Jong-un is believed to have at least one son, Ju-ae’s older brother, and a third child. whose sex is not publicly known. North Korea is experiencing “a wind of gender change,” says Koo Hae-woo, a former top agent at the spy agency, but still thinks there will only be “one man at the top.”
Gender barriers are evident throughout North Korea, perhaps more so now than when the country was founded after World War II. To build his empire, Kim Il-sung promoted equal rights to boost women’s contribution to the economy and society. A law gave women the right to vote and run for public office, and the Women’s Democratic Union was created. But in the 1990s, the state was plunged into economic crisis and deadly famine. Families only survived because married women took on the dual role of breadwinner and homemaker.
According to the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea, “pervasive gender stereotypes” remain the root cause of discrimination against women. “Women are called ‘flowers’. The appearance of women — clothing, hairstyle and even makeup — is subject to state control,” wrote Elizabeth Salmón in her February report. According to her, gender violence is normalized: “Many women in the country have faced sexual assaults and rapes, especially by men in positions of authority with total impunity.” About 72 percent of the people who have fled to South Korea are women, according to the report. A dozen female defectors who had been architects and doctors told me that even though they could only sell junk or work in public baths in Seoul, they were happier and more fairly treated.
Long before Ju-ae, the Kim regime turned elite women into political symbols. In the 1970s, Kim Jong-il’s grandmother, Kang Ban-sok, and her mother, Kim Jong-suk, appeared as models in Joseon Women’s magazine. Kang was promoted as the “mother of all Koreans” through popular songs, paintings, and revolutionary poetry. She was consistently seen wearing an indigenous Korean dress and a traditional hairstyle. The regime represented Kim as “the mother of the revolution.” Women were educated to emulate her virtuous femininity and wifely devotion.
Although Kim Jong-un keeps several women in his inner circle, they only serve his interests. “Kim Jong-un has been adept at using his female entourage by assigning them different roles,” says Yun Byung-se, a former South Korean foreign minister. For example, his sister, Kim Yo-jong, plays bad cop in diplomatic disputes with the United States, while the first lady, Ri Sol-ju, acts as the “mother of the state.”
With Ju-ae, Kim wants North Koreans to know that future generations of the Paektu lineage are willing to defend the dynasty, Yun says. And he wants to be seen as a “loving father to all his citizens,” said Choi Byung-seop, who spent three decades supervising North Korean television for the South Korean Ministry of Unification. Kim has released Ju-ae as a test balloon in order to “check the reactions inside and outside of his regime,” says Kim Young-soo. Gauging the loyalty of society’s elite is one way of measuring the consolidation of their power; showing off a daughter could mean he feels reasonably secure, Choi explains.
Ju-ae’s photographs reinforce what we already know about North Korea and tell us more, too. She is the latest in a string of idolized and hyped elite women. In February, the regime printed Ju-ae’s photo on five new postage stamps. We can only guess what Kim Jong-un’s purpose is in turning all eyes to his daughter.
© The New York Times 2023
Chun Su-jin is a South Korean journalist of North Korean descent. She has reported on North Korea for nearly two decades for the JoongAng Ilbo, one of the largest newspapers in South Korea. She is the author of the book “North Korean Women in Power: Daughters of the Sun”.