Why Kim Jong Un's daughter may already be his next-in-line

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un hasn't even turned 40, but he may have already picked his young daughter as his successor. Here, former NHK World Editor-in-Chief Ikehata Shuhei explains why the appearance of a white horse at a recent parade suggests she's the "chosen one". Ikehata currently serves as a director at a Japan-based think tank.

In September, I was in the NHK World TV studio for a discussion about North Korea with two scholars. And I couldn't resist turning the conversation to Kim's daughter.

After all, the girl believed to be named Kim Ju Ae has recently been a fixture in state-run media, just like her father.

"So, is she Kim's successor?" I asked.

"There are plenty of strong indications to suggest that's the case," said Keio University Professor Isozaki Atsuhito.

And apparently, one of the biggest clues came in the form of not one, but two, white horses at the front of a military parade in February.

First came a steed dubbed the "military horse of Mt. Paektu", a highly sacred part of North Korea near the border with China.

And just behind came another — described as "the favorite horse of the supreme leader's beloved child."

All the while, the girl known as Kim Ju Ae looked on from a VIP seat high above.

I must now point out that white horses are extremely auspicious animals in North Korea. They are a sign of nobility — and when leader Kim rides his, it's front-page news.

In turn, galloping on a white horse is considered a show of real strength, especially on Mt. Paektu. To much fanfare, Kim did exactly that in October 2019.

His exploits on horseback were immediately interpreted as a sign of commitment to his country in light of a flurry of Western sanctions.

The fact that Kim's daughter already has a white horse of her own is certainly telling. But that's not the only sign she could one day be the most powerful person in North Korea.

Back in the NHK World studio, Professor Isozaki said we should also look at the words used by state media to describe her. First came "beloved child", then "precious child," and eventually, "respected child".

In North Korea, "respected" is seldom used to describe anyone but the supreme leader himself.

In response to Isozaki's comments, Hinata-Yamaguchi Ryo, a Project Assistant Professor at the Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Tokyo, suggested Kim's daughter encapsulates a "trinity" of profoundly important attributes.

The first, he says, refers to her status as Kim's "successor". That's followed by the fact that she's part of the Paektu bloodline stretching back to North Korea's founder Kim Il Sung. And thirdly, that she's a symbol of the country's next generation.

In August, North Korean state-run television showed Kim Jong Un visiting the naval command with his daughter.

Peninsula no stranger to powerful women

Kim's daughter first appeared with her father last year, standing in front of a ballistic missile. Still, many experts were skeptical about her chances of eventually leading the country.

That's because Confucianism, which typically supports the notion of a male-dominated society, remains strong in North Korea.

I also had doubts about the chances of the girl's accession. But now I believe this was too strong an assumption.

As things stand, North Korea's fourth dictator could very well be a woman. Even if Kim does go on to have a son, there is no doubt the girl known as Kim Ju Ae will play a huge role in the regime.

And really, that shouldn't come as much of a surprise. Viewers of South Korean historical dramas will have seen many women who wielded formidable political clout throughout the 500 years of the Joseon Dynasty (1392-1897).

In the modern world, another strong woman in Kim's life is attracting attention. Kim's younger sister Kim Yo Jong has become one of the regime's most powerful figures. She is known for her unflinchingly severe tone toward the US and South Korean governments, and Pyongyang appears to find her intimidatory manner useful.

So, let's not be surprised if Western leaders one day find themselves seeking dialogue with the girl known as Kim Ju Ae.

Who knows what sort of a leader she would be. But it seems unlikely her father will raise her to promote peace, such as through nuclear disarmament or halting North Korea's missile programs.

A TV screen at a station in Seoul in November 2022 shows Kim and his daughter at a missile launch site.

Video: North Korea: The Dictatorship's Hidden Realities
You can watch the full program on demand. It is available until October 14, 2024.