The outpouring of love and care that North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un is publicly lavishing on his (roughly) 10-year-old daughter, Ju Ae, could spell trouble for his controversial, outspoken younger sister, Kim Yo Jong.
While Ju Ae’s image is appearing in a propaganda blitz portending her rise to the top of the North Korean hierarchy, auntie Yo Jong may have to watch her back, David Straub, a former senior diplomat in the American embassy in Seoul, told The Daily Beast.
“Kim had both his uncle and his half-brother murdered,” Straub said. It was six years ago, he noted, that Kim’s older half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, was killed by a VX chemical in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur. “I’ll bet everyone in the Kim clan remembered, perhaps especially Yo Jong.”
Considering the young girl’s spectacularly orchestrated ascent, Kim Yo Jong—whose own rise to the spotlight fueled much speculation that she could become North Korea’s next Supreme Leader—may be losing her value as a mouthpiece for rage against the North’s enemies: the Americans, the South Koreans, the Japanese.
“My guess is that Kim was getting really upset by all of the outside media on his sister being his potential or likely successor,” said Bruce Bennett, long-time North Korea analyst at the RAND Corporation.
Besides snuffing his half-brother, Bennett noted, Kim ordered the trial and execution nearly 10 years ago of his uncle-in-law, Jang Song Thaek, ranked No. 2 under Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, the brother of Jang’s wife. Jang had been known to give expert advice to Kim Jong Un after the death of Kim’s father, but the kid “did not want to hear that his uncle was his regent,” Bennett told The Daily Beast. “Kim Yo Jong is lucky that she is not as dead as Kim’s uncle.”
Next in line
At 39, Kim Jong Un is dangerously overweight and believed to be suffering from health issues that may shorten his days in absolute power. Ju Ae could potentially be “the chosen one” for a future succession ahead of her older brother and one younger sibling, but obviously cannot simply take over if her father is no longer able to rule. Like Jang Song Thaek, Yo Jong, four years younger than big bro, may even find herself in the risky position of tutoring her niece on the ins and outs of harsh dictatorship over an impoverished country that counts on nukes and missiles for defense.
Yo Jong’s “actions and body language over the years tell us that she is quite dedicated to her brother’s success,” Evans Revere, formerly with the State Department in Washington and the U.S. embassy in Seoul, told The Daily Beast. If Ju Ae “is being groomed as the successor, many more years of education and training will be needed before she will be able to assume the reins.”
With Kim Jong Un “hardly a picture of health,” Revere noted, “this raises the question of whether Kim Yo Jong might eventually be called upon to play the role of adviser and protector once assigned to Jang Song Thaek.”
On the anniversary Monday of Kim Jong Nam’s assassination, North Korea released a series of postage stamps showing Kim Ju Ae with her proud father at the test-firing of North Korea’s latest intercontinental ballistic missile, the Hwasong 17, in November. Since then, she’s appeared with him in public at least four times.
The stamps came out several days after she was on display with her father at a huge parade featuring the Hwasong 17 and other fearsome weaponry on the 75th anniversary of the founding of North Korea’s armed forces. Yo Jong was nowhere in sight in the images distributed by North Korea’s state media.
“Yo Jong was in the back instead of the seat for the core elites,” observed Choi Jin-wook, president of the Center for Strategic and Cultural Studies in Seoul. “She has risen to the position of Number Two under her brother, not under their father.”
Choi, former director of the Korea Institute for National Unification which monitors North Korea, believes Yo Jong’s rise “is unacceptable” to Kim’s wife, Ri Sol Joo. Ri might be “afraid her children will be in big trouble if Yo Jong takes over Jong-un’s power,” said Choi, who’s made a career watching North Korea. That alone makes her “more likely to be undisciplined.”
Meanwhile, the North Korean media has missed no opportunity to show off Kim Ju Ae’s status. A beautiful white horse featured in the parade was “most loved” by her, said state TV. Ju Ae was not shown in the saddle, but the horse is believed to be her personal pet—a reminder of the white horses ridden four years ago by Kim Jong Un and his aides on the snow-covered slopes of sacred Mount Paektu by the Chinese border, the highest point on the Korean peninsula.
“This might be Kim Jong Un’s way of preparing his daughter much earlier.”
The white horses on Paektu, gifts of Russia bearing near-mystical significance, insure Ju Ae’s place in “the Paektu bloodline.” North Korean mythology holds that Kim Il Sung, founder of the North Korean regime and grandfather of Kim Jong Un, fought the Japanese from a hideout on Paektu where, as the story goes, Kim Jong Il was born. (The truth, however, is that Kim Il Sun sat out World War II as a Soviet army officer in Khabarovsk, Jong Il’s actual birthplace.)
Absurdly, North Korea is also using the Paektu mystique to polish up the public image of Kim Jong Un’s wife and Ju Ae’s mother, who was reportedly a singer in a band when she met her future husband. What better way than to show her with her husband in the snow on Paektu chatting with soldiers in winter uniforms—all to prove that she too belongs to the Paektu bloodline.
Weirder still, North Korea has yet to refer to Ju Ae by name. We only know that because that’s what former Chicago Bulls basketball star Dennis Rodman said she was called after Kim hosted him in North Korea more than nine years ago. Dennis, who got to hold the baby girl at one of Kim’s palatial villas, dubbed him “a good dad.”
Authorities are preparing for a formal revelation of Ju Ae’s name by ordering North Korean females named Ju Ae to get new names, according to the U.S.-funded Radio Free Asia, citing sources inside North Korea. There can be only one Ju Ae—the same rule that goes for the given names of the three leaders of the Kim dynasty.
Victor Cha, who was in charge of North Korea issues with the National Security Council during the George W. Bush presidency, sees the burst of publicity for Ju Ae as showing once again that “succession in North Korea is always vertical, not horizontal”—meaning power has to pass to the offspring, not to a brother or sister.
It’s that reality that may doom Yo Jong. “Horizontal succession is a threat for insecure autocrats,” Cha told The Daily Beast. “Just look at what happened to Kim’s brother.”
“Also, it may be that Kim is trying to improve on past successions, both of which happened suddenly,” said Cha, now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.“ Kim Jong Un “was ill-prepared for the job” when his father Kim Jong Il died in 2011, Cha noted. “This might be Kim Jong Un’s way of preparing his daughter much earlier.”
Then again, “Kim could be getting an early start on elevating his daughter to preempt culturally conservative North Koreans who expect a male heir,” Leif-Eric Easley, professor at Seoul’s Ewha University, told The Daily Beast. Or maybe, he said, “the spotlight on the child” is all “to humanize” Kim Jong Un, “while distracting international observers from North Korea’s nuclear threats and human rights abuses.”
No matter, Kisam Kim—once with South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, now a lawyer in the U.S.—believes “things are going crazy” in North Korea. “Yo Jong will not have a chance unless [Kim Jong Un] perishes immediately,” he told The Daily Beast. It’s very likely that the “crazy man has issues with his health, and he knows his days are numbered.”