Kim Jong Un’s Daughter Marks a Year as Country’s Propaganda Star

(Bloomberg) -- A year ago, a school-age girl in a puffy white winter coat held her father’s hand to stroll past a weapon designed to obliterate an American city, and set a new course for North Korea’s propaganda apparatus.

Most Read from Bloomberg

The girl is the daughter of Kim Jong Un, who made her debut at the test of an intercontinental ballistic missile designed to deliver a nuclear warhead to the US mainland. No other child of a North Korean leader had ever been shown in such a fashion at such an early age, and her appearance broke the tradition of keeping the leader’s children out of the public’s eye until they were a part of the state’s apparatus.

She has been dubbed the “respected daughter” and “beloved child” by state media, which has yet to reveal her actual name — thought to be Ju Ae. South Korea’s spy agency has pegged her age at about 10 and believes her to be the second of three children between Kim and his wife, Ri Sol Ju.

The role of Kim’s daughter in state propaganda appears to be showing the public there is another generation waiting to run the family dynasty forged in the Cold War and it will rely on nuclear weapons for its survival. She humanizes Kim as a father, with the possible intent of conveying a message to North Korean parents that supporting an arms program means protecting their children from a US invasion and a loss of the “unique” socialist state forged by the Kim family.

“The preservation of the Kim family rule is, of course, inextricably tied to the country’s weapons program,” said Soo Kim, a former Korea analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency, who now works at US-based management consulting firm LMI.

She added while the intent may be to soften the image of Kim Jong Un, that could be a hard-sell. “The North Korean people are still starving and living under draconian repression – missiles or not. And unless Kim takes dramatic steps to improve the living conditions of his people and give them true freedom, their perceptions of Kim are unlikely to change fundamentally.”

But that has not stopped North Korea from using the daughter for political purposes. She has appeared 16 times in public over the past year — with 13 of the events related to the military, two for sports and one for the economy, according to information from the South Korean government.

A little more than a week after her debut, the daughter was by her father’s side again. She looked a bit more polished in a long black coat that was the same color as Kim Jong Un’s for a photo session to celebrate the successful launch of the country’s most powerful ballistic missile — prompting “stormy cheers of ‘Hurrah!’,” according to a Korean Central News Agency dispatch.

Her biggest moment on the public stage in North Korea likely took place in February, when she joined her mother and father at a banquet honoring the military and was placed front and center in a photo with some of the most powerful members of the armed forces.

She then joined her father at a military parade where his regime rolled through the streets of Pyongyang its biggest display of missile designed to deliver nuclear strikes on the US and its allies in Asia.

The “respected daughter” entered on her father’s arm as soldiers applauded. She was then perched in a seat of honor to see festivities that included skydivers in neon lights descending to the grounds and thousands of goose-stepping military personnel shouting praise to Kim.

The display of the weapons and his daughter sent a message to the world that North Korea won’t be bargaining away its nuclear arsenal any time soon. There was also a personal touch about the importance to the Kim regime, when the daughter joined her father during the display and gently brushed his cheeks — in front of the fawning eyes of state media, which captured the moment and broadcast it nationwide.

She has since been a staple at tests of new weapons, sat by her father’s side as he smoked cigarettes at the country’s new space agency and watched soccer matches with him.

This has raised speculation on whether she will be named successor. Given her young age and opaque ways in which the leadership works, it is probably too early to tell if she has been chosen to take over. South Korea’s National Intelligence Service believes there’s an older brother yet to be displayed a public event. The brother would be the preferred choice under North Korea’s patriarchal practices.

It is highly unlikely Kim would install his elementary school-age daughter in a government role now, a move that would all but assure her of official status. Given Kim’s relatively young age of 39, he could be in power for decades. Still, he’s overweight and a heavy smoker who has battled health problems, so succession is a subject of concern.

State propaganda is expected to keep her in a prominent role. North Korea issued stamps with photos from public debut of the “noble child” at the ICBM launch and Saturday will mark the one-year anniversary of the launch with its first ever Day of Missile Industry, which shows its “might as a world-class nuclear power.”

--With assistance from Shinhye Kang.

Most Read from Bloomberg Businessweek

©2023 Bloomberg L.P.