Kim Jong Un's daughter was a mystery for years, but now she's showing up at North Korea's biggest missile tests
- For years, Kim Jong Un's daughter — Kim Ju Ae — was a mystery to the world.
- But in late 2022 state media began showing photos of her at North Korean military events.
North Korea tested its largest intercontinental ballistic missile on Thursday, marking the country's latest attempt to boost its weapons program in the face of joint military drills between the US and South Korea.
Photographs released by state media after the launch appear to show the country's leader, Kim Jong Un, watching with a girl who has been identified by analysts and experts as his daughter, Kim Ju Ae.
For years, Ju Ae was cloaked in mystery. But in recent months, the authoritarian regime's news agency has routinely published images of the pre-teen alongside Kim at the country's biggest military events. A North Korea expert told Insider the remarkable shift may have political messaging to it — that Kim views the country's weapons program, which the US and UN have condemned, as a legacy pact.
"I think it does sort of reinforce that notion that the weapons are for protection, they're for the people, they're for the next generations," said Jenny Town, director of the 38 North Program at the Stimson Center think tank.
Thursday's missile test saw the Hwasong-17 ICBM reach a maximum altitude of over 3,700 miles and fly over 620 miles into waters off the coast of the Korean peninsula, traveling for over 69 minutes, according to state news agency KCNA.
"The drill confirmed the war readiness of the ICBM unit and the exceptional militancy of the DPRK's strategic forces and strictly verified their reliability," KCNA wrote of the test, which took place amid 11-day joint military exercises between American and South Korean forces, dubbed Freedom Shield.
One photograph from the launch appears to show Kim and Ju Ae watch the Hwasong-17 from a balcony overlooking the Pyongyang airport. It was only the latest in a string of military events — from missile tests to parades — during which she has been present.
An 'unprecedented practice'
Little is known about Ju Ae beyond a few details. Her existence was first revealed by former NBA player Dennis Rodman, who mentioned her by name during a media interview after a trip to North Korea in 2013. She is around 10 years old and is believed to be Kim's second of three children.
So far, Town said, the world has really only seen Ju Ae at military-oriented events.
North Korea's government first publicized Ju Ae during a November 2022 missile launch, showing her holding hands with Kim as they walk by the enormous Hwasong-17 ICBM. KCNA confirmed Kim visited the site with his "beloved daughter and wife," and experts later pointed out Ju Ae's public reveal.
Kim's other two children, one of whom is believed to be older than Ju Ae, are not seen in the images released by the regime.
Ju Ae has since made several appearances, made public by state media, at North Korean military events. After the mid-November ICBM launch, a photograph released in late November showed her in front of a transporter erector launcher alongside her father and uniformed personnel.
In early February, Ju Ae attended a military parade marking the 75th anniversary of the North Korean army's founding, during which the country unveiled a new design for what might be its most dangerous ICBM to date. That same month, she also made an appearance alongside her parents at a banquet in Pyongyang and watched a soccer match to observe the North Korean Day of the Shining Star holiday, which commemorates the birth of Kim Jong-il, the country's second dictator.
Earlier in March, Ju Ae sat next to her father and watched what was reportedly an artillery drill at an undisclosed location. And, most recently, she observed the ICBM launch on Thursday.
"It's notable that she's out in public at all…and this is really an unprecedented practice," Town said. "Generally, the Kim family has never shown their children when they were young, in public. So this is a completely new thing that we're seeing."
Deadly weapons — for the people
Some analysts and experts have speculated that all of Ju Ae's public appearances in recent months could be a signal that Kim is positioning her to be his successor. Others have suggested that Kim is trying to highlight the significance of his bloodline — that Kim wants one of his offspring to lead the country after his death, as his father and grandfather did before him — or that his family is closely intertwined with North Korea's nuclear program.
Town said that although there are several different ways to interpret Ju Ae's public showings, they appear to carry political messaging in the wake of a change in North Korea's nuclear posture.
The country adopted legislation in September 2022 allowing it to conduct preemptive nuclear strikes if its leadership is threatened, overriding a 2013 law that emphasized strikes as a retaliatory measure. Kim said in September that the new status is "irreversible."
North Korea has since changed its nuclear rhetoric to pivot away from being contingent on anything, and instead positions itself to be a nuclear state that possesses weapons to protect its people and future generations, Town said.
Ju Ae's presence at these military events "emphasizes the long-term vision" and the "longevity" of North Korea's nuclear program, Town said. She referenced to the first images published of Ju Ae and Kim from November — watching the Hwasong-17 launch in the background — which she said highlighted a legacy narrative and reinforces messaging that the weapons are for protection, the North Korean people, and future generations.
North Korea has hinted at this notion, too. After the November ICBM test, state media reportedly declared that nuclear weapons and missiles are intended to protect the country's children. As the paper of the ruling Worker's Party put it, they are "monuments to be passed down to our descendants for generations to come."
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