Observers have noted her quick development, both in physical appearance and demeanour, as she reportedly carries herself with a level of poise and confidence surpassing children her age. Her image has transitioned from childlike to a more mature look after she swapped her initial red flats for high-heels and now sports the same shoulder-length hair as her mother Ri Sol-ju.
On November 30, the elder Kim and his daughter, sporting matching leather trench coats and sunglasses, were shown inspecting combat aircraft at the Sunchon Airbase north of Pyongyang on the country’s “Aviation Day”.
A photo on the front page of state newspaper Rodong Sinmun showed Ju-ae with her father a step behind her – an act which, if carried out by any other, would have amounted to lèse-majesté in the Stalinist country.
Ju-ae occupied a prominent seat beside her father and at one point, a top military leader was observed kneeling down and whispering to her.
She was even featured on a series of commemorative stamps at an earlier age than any previous North Korean leaders.
“The fact that Kim Ju-ae is featured in the entire stamp series is a deliberate plan to highlight her. This is not a coincidence,” said Cho Han-beom, a senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification.
Accordingly, there appears to have been a shift in South Korean authorities’ assessment of Ju-ae’s potential ascension to head the Kim dynasty.
According to a 2017 assessment by South Korean intelligence, Kim Jong-un is believed to have a son who was born in 2010; Ju-ae, born in 2013; and another child of unknown sex born in 2017.
Since then, it had generally been assumed by the authorities in Seoul that Kim’s unknown son would be groomed as his potential successor, given that North Korea remains a deeply conservative, patriarchal society.
But Cho Tae-yong, head of South Korea’s National Security Council that reports to the president, said last week authorities were now wondering whether they should seriously consider Ju-ae as a potential successor.
“Not long ago, we were wondering whether Ju-ae could be a successor [because of her gender], but we’re now at the stage of verifying the possibility that she might be the heir apparent,” he said on a KBS television news show.
A report by Radio Free Asia, citing a Pyongyang source, claimed Ju-ae had even been referred to as “Morning Star General” at internal indoctrination lectures following the launch of North Korea’s first, presumably functioning, military reconnaissance satellite on November 21.
Officials at Seoul’s Unification Ministry said they could not confirm such reports.
However, Cheong Seong-chang of the Sejong Institute think tank in Seongnam views it as additional evidence supporting his prediction of Ju-ae as heir apparent.
“Judging from the way North Korea has been presenting her as a ‘female general’, it can be interpreted as another sign that they are starting to award her some sort of status as a de facto successor,” the researcher said.
Honorific expressions like General or Morning Star have been reserved for the Kims throughout the country’s 75-year history to justify father-to-son successions. The Kim dynasty has also been referred to as the “Baekdu” bloodline, named after the highest mountain on the Korean peninsula bordering China.
But some analysts expressed doubt that North Korean officials would have openly discussed succession in a speech to commemorate the satellite launch, suggesting the words might have been misinterpreted.
“This report needs to be verified. It’s hard to rule out the possibility that the information itself was significantly tainted or distorted” while being passed on to the outside world, said Hong Min, a senior research fellow at the Korea Institute for National Unification.
Yang Moo-jin, a political-science professor at the University of North Korean Studies, said Ju-ae’s growing exposure highlighted the North’s efforts to intensify hero-worshipping of the Kims, so that the family could solidify its grip on power amid a deepening confrontation with the United States and South Korea.
“Kim Ju-ae is being used as a propaganda star to drum up people’s loyalty to the Kim family and justify their fourth generation-to-generation succession,” Yang told This Week in Asia.
“However … this does not necessarily mean Ju-ae is the next successor. Koreans generally believe in the son inheriting the throne. It’s uncertain if North Korea is keeping the son out of public view to protect him or if he has health issues.”
Kim Jong-un’s father Kim Jong-il was designated as the successor to the North’s founding leader Kim Il-sung around 1973, and this was officially endorsed by party members at a party congress in 1980, Yang said. Kim Jong-un was named heir apparent in 2009 and unveiled by state media a year later.
“Under these circumstances, it’s way too early to say she will be the successor just because she appears prominently in propaganda pictures and state media call her by some honorific.”
Hong at the Korea Institute for National Unification said North Korea’s male-centred power structure made it unlikely that a daughter would take over.
Hyun In-ae, a professor of North Korean Studies at Ewha Womans University who defected from the North to the South in 2004, agreed.
“I believe North Korea’s high-ranking officials would feel very uncomfortable about a female leader,” she said, noting North Korea is a patriarchal society and far behind in gender equality.
“Many would feel strange about Kim taking his daughter everywhere and showing up with her at major events,” Hyun told the Korea Times. “All I can say now is that if someone is introduced as ‘General Morning Star’ or something similar, this means she is almost certainly a successor or someone with a status akin to that.”
Kim Young-soo, head of the private Institute of North Korean Studies think tank, said Ju-ae was “apparently playing a role like that of pacemaker in a marathon before a so-far unknown real successor, a boy, is ready to take it over”.
“She is also acting like a cute mascot, bolstering an image of the leader keeping a normal, lovely family and softening the atmosphere as Kim’s presence in any place makes others extremely nervous,” he said.