Given her shocking and highly-publicized entrance into public society, many now believe Kim Ju Ae, Kim Jong Un's daughter, is being primed to eventually succeed her father as leader of North Korea. Here's everything you need to know:
What do we know about Kim Ju Ae?
Given the sheltered nature of her upbringing, not much is confirmed — but we're pretty sure she's named Kim Ju Ae, and we're pretty sure she will soon turn 11 … at least according to retired NBA star Dennis Rodman, who allegedly held Kim's daughter during a 2013 visit to North Korea, The Washington Post reports. "I held their baby Ju-ae and spoke with Ms Ri [Sol-Ju, Kim's wife] as well. He's a good dad and has a beautiful family," Rodman told The Guardian at the time. South Korean intelligence has since separately backed up the girl's name and age.
Ju Ae is also believed to be one of three children, second to "an older brother, born in 2010, and a younger sibling born in 2017, gender unknown," the Post writes.
Why do people think Ju Ae is being primed to succeed Kim?
The girl has notably attended multiple high-profile events in recent months, starting with an intercontinental ballistic missile launch in November. Immediately, the world took note — Kim had never before shown one of his children in public, let alone at a rocket launch. Not long after, Ju Ae was seen again taking photos with missile scientists and officials, before eventually accompanying her father to both a military banquet and a military parade in early February. The nation also recently debuted eight new commemorative stamps, five of which feature the "beloved" young girl, as state media calls her.
Why show her off?
In bringing Ju Ae to military parades and missile launches, Kim Jong Un is likely attempting to paint himself as a father working to protect his nation, rather than a stalwart autocrat basking in his gluttonous appetite for weapons, said Wall Street Journal reporter Dasl Yoon. Indeed, not only does Ju Ae's presence "soften the image of the military, it also portrays Kim Jong Un as a loving father." And it's support Kim may very well need — analysts believe that in touting Ju Ae, the government is hoping to inspire confidence among the public, especially after it carried out a record number of missile launches despite ongoing public health issues and a sagging economy.
"[T]hese types of big military parades are meant as a message to us in the outside world, also to the North Korean people, so clearly showing us and showing their people that they want to convey an image of strength," Jean Lee, a North Korea expert at the Wilson Center, told NPR. "And they want to be associated with these missiles, massive missiles, and nuclear weapons. And that indicates their strength, the Kim family's strength in taking the country forward. But it does hint to us that it's going to be a rough ride in the year ahead."
Why might Ju Ae have been chosen to succeed Kim?
Not only does North Korean state media describes Ju Ae as "the most beloved" child, but she also appears to have a close relationship with her father, should their body language at public events be any indication, the Post notes. Though she has made only five public appearances, the young girl has been photographed holding her father's hand or affectionately grabbing his face. In fact, according to Ryu Hyun-woo, who defected from his post as North Korean ambassador to Kuwait in 2019, "Kim Jong Un's exceptional love for his daughter has long been famous among Pyongyang officials," he told the Post.
Is there a chance Kim Ju Ae does not succeed her father?
South Korea, for one, is skeptical of any setup. "There are views that (her appearances) are aimed at talking about a hereditary power transition," South Korea Unification Minister Kwon Youngse said during a mid-February parliamentary committee meeting, referring to Ju Ae. "But considering Kim Jong Un's age and the fact that North Korea has a much more patriarchal nature than ours, there are also lots of questions about whether North Korea having a woman (prepared to) inherit power now is indeed right." More than likely, Ju Ae's turn in the public is meant to galvanize support for Kim Jong Un's family and prepare for an eventual transfer of power, to whomever that may be, Kwon continued.
Duyeon Kim, a senior analyst at the Center for a New American Security in Washington seemed to agree, telling The Associated Press that it's "too soon" to assume Ju Ae will takeover because "the son has always succeeded the throne in North Korea." "We don't yet know if Kim Jong Un is willing to break tradition regarding the gender of his successor or if she will play a key role to support whoever Kim appoints," he said.
Even so, Seong-Chang Cheong, a senior analyst at South Korea's Sejong Institute, nonetheless suspects Ju Ae has been "internally appointed" as her father's successor, citing the way Kim struggled with how his father handled his appointment years ago. "If the outside world had known early on that Kim Jong Un had been 'internally appointed' as the successor to Kim Jong Il at the age of eight, foreign experts would not have underestimated Kim Jong Un's grip on power and made groundless speculation," Seong-Chang has said, per CBS News. "Kim Jong Un seems to have judged that it would do more good than harm to informally appoint his daughter Kim Ju Ae as the successor and make it public about her at her early age."
Well, if not her, who?
If not one of his children, analysts believe Kim Yo Jong, Kim Jong Un's sister, likely has the best shot at succession, since she too comes from the "Mount Paektu bloodline" and carries a "direct lineage to the country's founder Kim Il Sung," writes the Journal. Not to mention most of Kim's other family members are either too old, too uninterested in politics, exiled, or dead. But of course, Yo Jong is a woman, which could prove an obstacle if and when the time comes.
Regardless, will Kim Jong Un, 39, be stepping aside any time soon?
Don't count on it. Both his father and grandfather "ruled until their deaths and it's likely that Kim Jong Un is going to do the same," said the Journal's Yoon.