Pyongyang’s descent into its final fourth iteration could take a radical new turn
A new and unusual star has emerged on the North Korean political scene: a girl between the ages of ten and twelve. Perhaps Kim Jong-un is trying to be a responsible ruler – given that the country is an absolute monarchy – and has decided not to repeat his father’s mistakes. Instead, he is prepping for an heir to the throne out of concern for stability and keeping power in the hands of his family.
On 18 November, the Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile was test-fired from Pyongyang’s Sunan International Airport, which had been closed for several years due to the pandemic. However, the attention of observers was drawn not to the fact of another ICBM launch, but to the appearance of a pre-teen girl. She appeared with her father and mother, Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un and his wife Lee Sol-ju. It is soon revealed that the girl’s name is Kim Joo Ae and she is the second daughter of the ruling couple of North Korea.
It is an unprecedented step in itself for a leader of North Korea to appear in public with his children. And Kim Joo Ae’s appearance was a sign that tradition was changing in the region. Between late November and late February, Kim Joo Ae made six public appearances. His appearance at a reception on February 7 to mark the 75th anniversary of the North Korean armed forces is particularly interesting. Photos published in the official press show the girl seated at a banquet table, with her father on her left and her mother on her right, and four army generals, in full uniform, standing at attention behind them.
Kim Joo Ae’s frequent public appearances and sudden attention from the official press have led many to speculate that Kim Jong-un has decided to appoint the girl as his successor. The choice of a woman as the ‘next Kim’ in itself should not be surprising: by the standards of North Korea’s elite, Kim Jong-un can be considered liberal on gender issues and often appoints women to senior positions. does (Foreign Minister Choi Seong-hee being one of many examples).
Still, the decision to potentially nominate a successor who isn’t even a teenager is unprecedented. But there could be a reason for this.
The decision that hereditary succession was the norm for North Korea and its ruling class dates back to the 1960s, during the reign of Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-un’s grandfather. This move was probably influenced by events in the USSR following the death of Joseph Stalin. It came as a shock to Kim Il-sung that people from the late leader’s inner circle were at the forefront of the posthumous criticism. Seeing this, Kim Il-sung probably came to the conclusion that he needed to appoint a successor while he was alive.
Soon though, Kim Il-sung had to learn another lesson. Mao Zedong famously used similar reasoning to appoint a successor. That person was Lin Biao, the then Commander-in-Chief of the Chinese military. However, Lin Biao decided not to wait for the great captain’s death and attempted a coup in which he died.
Based on the experience of the two Communist veterans, Kim Il-sung probably concluded that his successor should be one who would not be tempted to bolster his own support by organizing a campaign of posthumous criticism, and who would be able to accelerate the momentum. Don’t be tempted to process and remove him from power without waiting for his natural death. Clearly, only one person could meet these criteria – the leader’s own son.
Kim Il-sung had several children by at least two women, but chose his first-born son, Kim Jong-il, who was born in Soviet Russia in 1941 (not 1942, as North Korean propaganda claims). but in 1941, near Khabarovsk, where he was named Yuri according to Soviet archival materials).
However, for some reason, Kim Jong-il was in no hurry to follow his father’s example. Kim Jong-il did not appoint a successor until the autumn of 2008, when he suffered a stroke. There were indeed several attempts to do this, but they were quickly abandoned. It was only when Kim Jong-il realized the inevitability and relative nearness of his end that he named his third son, Kim Jong-un, as his successor. An informal campaign to glorify him began in 2009, while the future leader was formally introduced to the country in October 2010.
Apparently, Kim Jong-un was expected to spend some time in ‘training’, accompanying his father on visits, attending meetings and learning the science of authoritarian rule in practice. But fate had a different plan: Just a year after Kim Jong-un was confirmed as his successor, his father died unexpectedly. Kim Jong-un came to power in December 2011.
Kim Jong-un appears to be busy preparing for the succession at a young age – after all, he is not even forty yet. Many observers have questioned whether Kim Ju Ae’s elevation clearly signals her new role as heir apparent to the Juche throne. Well, the final decision probably hasn’t been made yet – the candidate is too young. But the frequency with which she now appears at official events, and the central role she plays in them, suggests that Kim Jong-un has big plans for the middle daughter.
Everyone is aware of the reason behind this haste. Leaving aside personal factors, or, to put it less politely, the whims of the North Korean leader (a man who sometimes follows his emotions), there are at least three circumstances to consider.
FirstlyKim Jong-un spent his adolescence in Europe and appears to have been influenced in many ways by the traditions of European monarchies. For example, he does not consider it necessary to hide his wife from the public. On the contrary, from the first months of his reign, he actively appeared in the company of Lee Sol-ju, with whom he is genuinely in love. By this logic, it is not unusual for a ‘princess’, despite her youth, to assume a definite social and political role at a very young age.
Others, If Kim Joo Ae really wants to sit on the throne, Kim Jong-un really needs to prepare both the state apparatus and the public for the idea that this time power will pass to a woman. In theory, the status of women in North Korean society has improved greatly over the past 20 or 30 years. Still, the decision to nominate a woman for the top post may cause some confusion in the country. It is possible that Kim Jong-un has decided to dispel this confusion by gradually accustoming the population to his unorthodox decisions.
the thirdIt cannot be denied that Kim Jong-un has learned the lessons of his father, who left decisions until the last minute despite his health problems. Of course, the leader’s health is one of the most closely guarded secrets, but it seems to have left a lot to be desired. In this case, Kim Jong-un, as a responsible ruler in an autocratic monarchy, must not repeat his father’s mistakes to preserve the country’s stability and power in his family’s hands, but must begin preparations for In advance of a successor.
In short, a new and unusual star has risen on the political scene of North Korea.
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