Why Is It Early For Kim Jong Un To Introduce Kim Ju Ae As Potential Successor Of North Korea? – Analysis


On March 16, 2024, North Korea state media released a report, referring to Kim Jong Un’s daughter, Kim Ju Ae, as a “great person of guidance”. It is believed that the term is usually reserved for senior leaders or potential successors of the Pyongyang regime. The recent use of the term suggests a confirmation of the speculation that Ju Ae could be the potential successor of the supreme leader. It was confirmed by South Korea’s Intelligence Agency that Ju Ac will be “likely successor” of the regime. Since her first appearance with Kim Jong Un to witness the launch of the intercontinental ballistic missile in November 2022, she appeared very often at public events. It was estimated to be around 26 occasions, 23 of them related to military activities, the rest were economic activities. 

This seems to raise a question, if she is to be North Korean successor why does she pop up so early and at this young age? The previous North Korean successors were only publicly nominated when they came of age. For example, Kim Jong Un remained mysterious until he became North Korea’s leader in 2011 at the age of 27 years old. Kim Jong Il was chosen as successor when he was 33 years old. 

Some analysts believe that her appearance only served to distract attention from North Korean increasing testing of its nuclear missile while others argued that it is impossible for Ju Ae to be successor in the Pyongyang regime’s patriarchal dynasty. Nevertheless, if we look at the way Ju Ae was introduced and North Korea’s domestic politics, it suggested that the introduction is more on domestic politics rather than North Korea’s foreign policy.

The rising of Kim Ju Ae’s potential rival 

One of the main reasons why Kim Ju Ae was introduced to the public only when she was around 11 years old is related to the rise of other potential contenders in the North Korean government. Kim Yo Jong, Kim Jong Un’s younger sister, who has gained popularity and risen steadily through the ranks since 2018. While playing an important role in the rapprochement between the two Korea in 2018, She was also at the forefront of propaganda and rhetoric against South Korea following the unsuccessful meeting between Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump in 2019. In September 2021, she was appointed as a member of the State Affairs commission of North Korea, the only woman in the department. She is also a Deputy Department Director of the Publicity and Information Department of the Workers Party of Korea. Despite the position, it is believed that she wields more power and plays an important role in North Korea. 

On some occasions, her speech is to be taken seriously by its rival. In 2020, North Korea blew up the inter-Korean liaison office, following the threat made by Ki Yo Jong. The liaison office was built in 2018 to reduce tensions between the North and the South. Similarly, in February 2024, Kim Yo Jong expressed optimism of the future of North Korea-Japan relations, while also indicating that it is her personal view and North Korea’s leadership has no interest and idea in establishing relations with Japan. Her words were to be taken seriously by Tokyo. This style of statement is showing that she holds more authority and plays an important role in North Korea in steering North Korea’s foreign policy. Her intelligence and capability were also acknowledged by Kim Jong Il, former North Korean leader, when he told a Japanese chef that “if Kim Yo Jong were a boy, he would hand down power to her”. This implies that it is mainly due to the patriarchal dynasty that prevented her from ruling North Korea. That barrier seems to be taken away as Kim already gave hints that his younger daughter will be the next leader of the regime. 

Since 2018, Kim Yo Joong has played an important role in North Korea’s foreign policy, which she always participates in North Korea’s foreign high official meeting and met with world leaders such as South Korean President Moon Jea-in, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and the US president Donald Trump, and Russian President Vladimir Putin. She was never absent from Kim Jong Un’s foreign visits.

This seems to highlight that she plays more of a role than her position suggested in the North Korean government. While holding the second highest ranking position in the North Korean government, she is also perceived as the most powerful woman in North Korea. Many believe that she is the only one who could fill in North Korea’s leadership in case Kim Jong Un is having health issues. Her popularity and power in North Korea is increasing as well following her strong rhetoric against South Korea.

However, Kim Yo Jong’s future role is getting blurred following the frequent appearance of Kim Ju Ae and hints that she could be a potential successor of the North Korean regime. It is not a coincidence that her appearance happened in a time when Kim Yo Jong became more popular and powerful in North Korea. Ju Ae’s public appearance is probably made to remind North Korean people that Ju Ace, not Yo Jong, will be future North Korean leaders. She often appeared with her father, standing in front of missile and military parades and surrounded by generals. Regardless of how truthful and important Kim Yo Jong to Kim Jong Un could be, she will never be named as successor of North Korea.

The cult of power transition in North Korea

In the history of transition of power in North Korea, there was competition and rivalry between the son and the brother of the North Korean leaders, which often resulted in sideline, demolition, exile, or at worst getting purged. For example, Kim Jong Il was rivaled by Kim Jong Il’s younger brother Kim Yong Ju, and his own half-brother Kim Pyong Il. Following the announcement of Kim Jong Il as the successor, Kim Yong Ju was sidelined and demoted from head of the Organization Department to a deputy chair of the Administrative Council regardless of his contribution to North Korea. Kim Pyong Il was politically oppressed and sent on various diplomatic missions in Europe since 1988, which moved from one country to another and only returned home in 2019. 

Kim Jong Un is at another level, from 2011 to 2016, Kim Jong Un purged around 340 people including Defense Ministers (5), top educational officers, his own uncle and other senior government officials in North Korea. In 2017, Kim Jong Un also ordered the assignation of his half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, in Kuala Lumpur International Airport in 2017. He was perceived as a potential contender to be North Korean leader.

This suggests that there is only one supreme leader in North Korea, whose power will be transferred hereditary from father to children, not to aunt or uncle. Kim Ju Ae will be completely shadowed by her aunt, if she were only introduced as successor of the regime when she is grown up. Despite North Korea is a patriarchal regime, that give more advantage to son as successor, it still possible to overcome the challenges if the daughter proven to be capable and intelligent. This can be seen via the rising of Kim Jo Yong. The early appearance of Ju Ae as successor will help increase her status as well as her popularity in North Korea. As both are female, their accomplishment and capability will be very critical in becoming North Korean leader. Kim Jo Yong has made a lot of accomplishments while Kim Ju Ae’s capability and intelligent has yet to be proven.

In short, North Korea is a mountain which can only be ruled by one tiger. The introduction of Ju Ae as the successor of North Korea will put the fate of Kim Jo Yong into speculation. Only time can tell if she continues to rise to the top or she will be demoted, exiled, being purged. As long as Kim Yo Jong continues to express her absolute loyalty and capability to serve North Korean leaders, she would probably be able to maintain her role until Kim Ju Ae suits enough to rule North Korea.

Sokvy Rim

Sokvy Rim is a researcher based in Cambodia.

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