North Korea released a photo on Saturday showing North Korean leader Kim Jong-un with what appears to be his daughter for the first time. The shot was taken in front of North Korea’s most powerful ballistic missile, in a staging aimed at linking nuclear weapons to the ruling dynasty.
She wears a white jacket, and seems to share a moment of complicity with her father who holds her hand firmly. The image, published Saturday, November 19 by official North Korean media, could be full of tenderness if it were not for the threatening presence of an imposing ballistic missile in the background.
Above all, the father in this photo is none other than Kim Jong-un, the very authoritarian North Korean leader, while the young girl would be Ju-ae, one of the three children that the North Korean leader would have had with his wife, Ri Sol-ju, according to Western intelligence.
From Dennis Rodman to the photo of the little girl with the missile
It was the presence of this young girl that caused this shot to go around the world, and not the impressive silhouette of what the official media claim to be a Hwasong-17, that is to say the most powerful North Korean intercontinental missiles.
Indeed, the very existence of Kim Jong-un’s children had never been confirmed by the Pyongyang regime until now. The only reference to Ju-ae “was made by American basketball player Dennis Rodman after his visit to North Korea in 2013”, emphasizes Antoine Bondaz, specialist in North Korea at the Foundation for Strategic Research (FRS).
At the time, the American sportsman described the master of Pyongyang as a “good father” who had just had “a little girl”, in an interview with the British daily The Guardian. Ju-ae should therefore be at least ten years old today – which could correspond to the young girl in the photo.
This snapshot – along with a few others of the same ilk published by the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) – offers a very rare insight into the intimate life of the feared North Korean leader. In a country as closed in on itself as North Korea, this unprecedented open window on Kim Jong-un’s family circle would be enough to arouse the interest of North Korea specialists around the world.
But Ju-ae’s presence in the photo doesn’t just serve to turn Kim Jong-un into a good family man. This staging of a girl barely out of early childhood, parading alongside her father in front of a ballistic missile, the symbol par excellence of North Korean military and nuclear power, “aims to link the North Korean nuclear program directly to the Kim dynasty”, assures Antoine Bondaz.
Kim Jong-un uses his daughter to signify both to his people and to the international community that “nuclear power is a family affair in North Korea”, adds André Carvalho, specialist in the military strategy of Asian countries. for King’s College London and the International Team for the Study of Security (ITSS) Verona, an international collective of experts in international security issues.
In the line of succession?
By lending herself to this communication operation, Ju-ae allows her father to legitimize his personal power a little more. The nuclear weapon represents the main strength of the “hermit kingdom” and, by linking this missile so intimately to the clan of which he is the pater familias, Kim Jong-un makes it known that he is also, in a way, the “father” of the symbol of North Korean power.
This photo thus serves as a warning to any less docile factions of the regime. “We always have the impression that there is no opposition in North Korea, but that is not true, and this staging makes it possible to indicate to those who could dream of a North Korea without Kim at its head that there is no regime without Kim Jong-un and his dynasty, because they are the guardians and craftsmen of nuclear power”, analyzes André Carvalho.
This is also why Kim Jong-un would have opted to be photographed with his daughter rather than with the son he is also supposed to have. In the Kim dynasty, power is historically transmitted from father to son, and appearing with his descendant could have been perceived as the presentation of the dolphin, “while the purpose here is not to evoke the succession but the aspect dynamics of nuclear power”, emphasizes Antoine Bondaz.
This specialist also brushes aside the idea held by some experts that Kim Jong-un is “preparing his country for the possibility that his daughter will succeed him because she would have more in common with him than his son”, according to the words of André Carvalho. For Antoine Bondaz, the true heir would live better by living in hiding. “In North Korea, from the moment the successor is presented, it weakens him”, assures the expert of the Foundation for the strategic research.
However, officially presenting his young daughter in this very military context “suggests that she will certainly have an important role to play in the future”, believes André Carvalho. Kim Jong-un does not hesitate to do play the leading roles to the women of his family. He had already allowed his sister, Kim Yo-jongto represent him at the Winter Olympics in 2018 before appointing her to a crucial position within the state apparatus.
It is perhaps the small touch of modernity of the North Korean dictator. “In a society as patriarchal as North Korea, Kim Jong-un knows that without a helping hand from him, women will not have the necessary legitimacy to occupy important positions within the state apparatus” , concludes André Carvalho.
Finally, this photo also makes it possible to reaffirm a principle that Kim Jong-un took care to include in the law on the use of nuclear weapons, adopted in early September 2022. In this text, “it is written that even in beheading strike case [c’est-à-dire visant à tuer directement Kim Jong-un, NDLR]the country would retaliate with a nuclear weapon”, stresses Antoine Bondaz.
It is a way of saying that the country would remain a nuclear power after his departure. The photo does not suggest otherwise: it indicates that even if Kim Jong-un were to disappear, there would be someone in his family to press the nuclear button, be it his heir or this little girl dressed in white.