When Kim Jong Un launched the biggest intercontinental missile North Korea has ever made, the super weapon was always bound to grab the world’s attention.
However, the North Korean leader also revealed something just as potentially powerful and vital to his dynastic survival: an heir.
Almost nothing is known about Kim’s family, who have been shrouded in mystery for years.
It’s long been understood the leader and his wife, Ri Sol Ju, have three children — two girls and a son — although their existence has never been officially confirmed by North Korea.
So — when a young girl appeared at Kim’s side in coverage of the successful launch of the Hwasong-17 on November 19 — it took many by surprise.
Dressed in an outfit that matched the ICBM she was watching, and holding her father’s hand, the child provided the first official confirmation to the outside world that Kim has at least one heir.
Analysts say her name is Kim Ju Ae, although North Korean media remain tight-lipped about the elusive family member.
They have only confirmed the girl at the launch was his daughter.
The girl’s appearance could be a signal as to Kim’s succession plan, but analysts also suggest it serves as a warning shot to other elites within the country that the Kim bloodline will be the one to rule long after the current leader is gone.
Kim’s daughter’s name was revealed almost by accident
It was NBA star Dennis Rodman — a regular visitor to North Korea and friend of its mercurial leader — who revealed Kim’s daughter’s name after the two families went on a trip together in 2013.
In an interview with The Guardian that same year, Rodman dropped the name of the North Korean leader’s baby girl almost by accident.
“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,” he said.
Kim Ju Ae is aged about 10, according to South Korea’s intelligence agency, although others say she could be 12-13 years old.
Not much else is known about her, or her other rumored siblings.
However, there is some speculation that Kim Ju Ae is being introduced now because her father sees her performing an important political role in the future.
“This [display] would indicate that she will be educated and trained to go into leadership or work behind the scenes like her aunt [Kim Yo Jung],” North Korea leadership expert at the US-based Stimson Center, Michael Madden, said.
“She will have the resume to do it.”
It is not clear what education Ju Ae is currently receiving.
Analysts say there had been speculation that she had appeared as a singer at a state concert a few years ago, although this was never confirmed.
Australia’s leading North Korean expert, Leonid Petrov, said that, ultimately, it is Ju Ae’s “revolutionary” blood lineage that will give her legitimacy and power.
“What political role she might be assigned [to]sooner or later, is less important than the fact that she belongs to the sacred family of anti-Japanese partisans who were installed by the Russians to rule the post-war North Korea,” he said.
Kim may be attempting to show off a ‘softer side’
Mr. Madden says there were a few reasons why Kim Jong Un chose to show his daughter now.
The photo op on Saturday could be about Kim crafting his image as leader.
While Kim is a dictator and North Korea an authoritarian regime, the decision to reveal Ju Ae in pictures was an attempt to show the world he was normal, or as “normal as possible”.
“It shows a degree of comfort on his part in bringing her out, at least politically,” he said.
Dr. Petrov — a politics and business expert at the International College of Management Sydney and the Australian National University — agrees that Kim’s display could be seen as a sign he is trying to show a softer side to his people.
“Kim Jong un is still relatively young for the role of Supreme Leader or Father Marshall,” Dr. Petrov said.
“So, to project the image of [a] caring father and benevolent ruler, Kim took his little daughter to the photo session at [the] ICBM launching site.”
Dr. Petrov also noted the girl’s carefully selected sartorial choices at the choreographed event.
“Even her dress and shoes’ color were matching those of the rocket: the white, the black and a splash of red.”
However, there may be other reasons why Kim has chosen this moment to bring his family out of the shadows.
Mr. Madden said that, while Kim’s daughter wasn’t necessarily the next leader, the occasion still had everything to do with succession and protecting the Kim dynasty.
“It’s always about succession, to say it’s not bull****. It’s also a warning shot [to the elite]” he said.
“By bringing his daughter out, he’s saying: ‘I’m doing this my way.'”
Could this be a message to those outside the Kim bloodline?
Paektu Mountain holds important mythological, cultural and nationalistic significance to North Koreans and is where the ruling family claims its roots.
Mr. Madden said anyone from outside the bloodline ruling North Korea was out of the question.
“North Korea is only led by the Kim family” he said.
In choosing to show his daughter off at such a highly publicized event, Kim may have been “signalling to show the family line is strong and will continue on for generations,” Stimson Center senior fellow and director of Stimson’s 38 North Program, Jenny Town, said.
“Especially when the elites are shuffled, often to prevent anyone from gaining too much power or influence,” she added.
Kim Yo Jong, Kim’s powerful sister, has emerged in recent years as a close aide to her brother and has played a large part at his side during summits.
However, in a patriarchal society such as North Korea, it is likely that Kim Jong Un’s son, rather than his sister or daughter, will take over as ruler.
“I don’t believe Kim Yo Jong was ever really considered for successor, either, other than maybe as in case of Kim’s sudden near-term demise,” Ms Town said.
“After all, Kim Yo Jong is not much younger than Kim Jong Un, so it really wouldn’t have made much sense to consider her for the future, assuming he lives a long life.”
Instead, Kim Yo Jong appears to be content in her current role, although she could one day serve as a trusted advisor to her nephew when he becomes Supreme Leader.
Unlike her uncle by marriage, who ended up being assassinated, Kim Yo Jong and Kim’s own children are protected because they are blood relatives.
“While it was rare to see the leader’s children under Kim Jong Il, I think we’re really still learning about how Kim Jong Un will treat his family within the public narrative.”
In fact, even with Kim’s daughter’s public appearance, Dr. Petrov said, it remained unlikely that any female Kim would ever take over as Supreme leader.
“Only if Kim Jong Un does not have a bad successor, that would create a possibility for Kim Yo Jong to inherit the top role in North Korean leadership hierarchy,” Dr. Petrov said.
“However, I think it’s more likely that collective leadership will succeed Kim with some of his female relatives to be added to the circle of decision-makers for the sake of adding legitimacy.”
Dr. Petrov said the North Korean leader must be careful in the way he introduces any male heir.
“If Kim really has a son, he should be careful about the timing [of] when to introduce him to the North Korean public and ruling elites,” he said.
“This would require a serious preparation effort by the official hagiographers, to create a positive image of the new rising star in North Korean political pinnacle.”