North Korea gives clearest sign yet that tweenager is heir apparent

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SEOUL North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has given the clearest signal yet that he is positioning his middle-school-aged daughter as his successor, analysts say, after a raft of official photos showed the girl holding center stage in a banquet hall full of military top brass.

The photos, released by the state Korean Central News Agency on Wednesday, were said to be from a celebration in Pyongyang the night before, on the eve of the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Korean People’s Army.

The photos show Ju Ae, who is believed to be about 10 or 11 years old, in the middle of all the photos — a spot usually reserved for the leader himself. The girl’s hair is styled to look like the do worn by her stylish mother, first lady Ri Sol Ju, and she wears a no-nonsense black skirt suit and sensible shoes.

As they walk into the banquet hall, military leaders, their jackets bedecked with medals, stand to applaud. At the table, top generals stand behind the first family, beaming with wide smiles.

The banquet was held in the Yanggakdo Hotel, on an island in the river that runs through Pyongyang. This is the same hotel where American student Otto Warmbier was staying before an incident that led to him being detained and rendered brain dead.

The congratulatory scenes were laid out across the front page of the Rodong Sinmun newspaper on Wednesday morning, ahead of an expected military parade to mark the anniversary.

At the banquet, Kim Jong Un called for development of the country’s military. “Let us all redouble efforts and work harder to strengthen and develop our army and to achieve the prosperity and development of our socialist country,” he was quoted as saying.

The report didn’t provide the girl’s name or age, identifying her only as Kim’s “respected daughter” — the first time that adjective has been applied to her, an apparent upgrade from the previous “beloved.” But she is believed to be the girl called Ju Ae whom retired National Basketball Association star Dennis Rodman held as a baby during a visit to Pyongyang in 2013.

The media presentations of the daughter constitute an “active push” from Pyongyang to raise her profile, said Cheong Seong-chang, a North Korea leadership expert at the Sejong Institute outside Seoul.

“Given these developments, there is no longer a question about whether Kim Ju Ae has been chosen as Kim Jong Un’s successor,” he said.

While North Koreans — who have been told from birth that the Kim family hails from a vaunted blood line and that it is only right that the family should rule — might accept a fourth-generation ruler, it remained to be seen whether the highly patriarchal system would accept a female ruler, Cheong said.

The photos underscore the importance of the military in maintaining the Kim family’s claim to legitimacy.

Kim Jong Un was announced to the military as his father’s successor when he was only 8 years old, according to his aunt.

At his eighth birthday party in Pyongyang, Kim was given a general’s uniform decorated with stars, and real generals with real stars bowed to him and paid their respects to him from that moment on, said Ko Yong Suk, who was at the party.

“It was impossible for him to grow up as a normal person when the people around him were treating him like that,” Ko said in an interview with The Washington Post in 2016.

Kim Jong Un’s daughter made her first public appearance in November, when she accompanied him to a missile launch site and inspected a missile with him while holding hands, according to a photo published by North Korean state media. Then she was called his “beloved” daughter.

Another photo showed the pair, together with Ri, at an observation platform during a missile launch. The photos were from intercontinental ballistic missile launch — the second launch of its kind that month — according to state media.

Kim was trying to both emphasize his family’s roots and use them to underscore the foundation of North Korea’s nuclear development, said Thae Yong-ho, a South Korean lawmaker who was a top North Korean diplomat before he defected in 2016.

This is a signal that the weapons program, the crux of the regime’s survival strategy, is here to stay, he said. “By showing his daughter next to the ICBM, [Kim] is announcing to the world and his people that [North Korea] will never give up its nuclear program and it will be carried on throughout his lineage,” Thae said.

Kim Jong Un is the third generation of his family to rule the totalitarian state since it was founded by his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, in 1948. After Kim Il Sung died in 1994, his son Kim Jong Il took over, ruling until the end of 2011, when he was succeeded by Kim Jong Un, who is now 39.

Kim Jong Un fueled widespread speculation about his succession planning after showing off his daughter for the first time at the end of last year. But the question of whether a woman could run North Korea is a complex one, female defectors and researchers say.

Although women hold some powerful positions in the regime — there’s Kim’s sister and top aide, Kim Yo Jong; Foreign Minister Choe Son Hui; and Hyon Song Wol, who directs security and logistics for the leader’s public events — North Korea remains a deeply male-dominated society.

Kim Jong Un’s motivation in releasing his daughter’s picture was not to depict her as a potential future leader but to portray himself as a fatherly figure for political purposes, Kim Seok-Hyang, a professor at Ewha Woman’s University, said after the first photos came out last year. Breaking the ultimate glass ceiling is not yet politically viable given the country’s male-dominated hierarchy, she added.

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