​Is Kim Jong-un’s ‘Most Beloved Daughter’ North Korea’s Next Leader?

North Korean state media has not revealed much about the cherub-faced young girl who has made several appearances with Kim Jong-un, the country’s leader, in recent weeks.

On New Year’s Day, state media carried undated photos of her and Mr. Kim visiting a nuclear missile facility. Her age and name have not yet been reported; she has simply been referred to as Mr. Kim’s “most beloved daughter.”

That was enough to raise questions about the young girl’s place in the Kim family dynasty and whether she was being groomed as ​Mr. Kim’s successor.

North Korea is not a monarchy. Its top leader is supposedly elected through a ruling Workers’ Party congress. In reality, though, the Kims have run the country like a private family enterprise since its founding at the end of World War II​.

Both Mr. Kim’s grandfather and father ruled until they died. Mr. Kim, who turns 39 next Monday, has already been in power for 11 years and is unlikely to go anywhere any time soon.

Yet the question of who would inherit ​the regime — and its fast-growing nuclear arsenal — has remained the subject of endless fascination among officials and analysts, especially when doubts about Mr. Kim’s health have emerged.​

The speculation of North Korea’s succession plans unfolded as Seoul and Washington said this week that they were discussing how to better cope with North Korea’s growing nuclear threat, employing the full range of American defense capabilities.

The recent guessing game about succession first began after North Korea launched its Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile ​on Nov. 18 ​in one ​of ​the country’s most significant weapons tests.

T​he following day, North Korean state media reported that Mr. Kim watched the launch with his daughter​,​ and released photos of the​ girl in a white padded jacket, holding Mr. Kim’s hand as they walked around the testing site.

Mr. Kim and his daughter watched a test missile launch in November in this image provided by North Korean state media. Credit…Korean Central News Agency, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Days later, ​​the National Intelligence Agency of South Korea identified the young girl as Kim Ju-ae, the baby that retired N.B.A. star Dennis Rodman ​​said he was allowed to hold when he met Mr. Kim in Pyongyang in 2013.

Ju-ae’s public appearance marked the first time ​Pyongyang confirmed that Mr. Kim had a child. Until her debut in state media, ordinary North Koreans had never seen any of Mr. Kim’s children.

South Korean intelligence officials have said that Mr. Kim has three children, with the eldest likely being a son. Ju-ae is his second child, believed to be 9 or 10​, they said.

Outside analysts quickly noted that she was described as “beloved” and had been chosen to represent the next generation of the Kim family. They were also intrigued by Mr. Kim’s decision to introduce her at a missile test site, highlighting the link between the Kim family and the North’s weapons program.

A photograph provided by North Korean state media showed Mr. Kim, his wife, Ri Sol-ju, and former pro basketball player Dennis Rodman at an exhibition game in Pyongyang in March 2013.Credit…Korean Central News Agency, via Reuters

The speculation around succession deepened when ​Ju-ae joined her father again, this time in late November for a group photo with missile engineers. She was dressed more formally for the occasion, with a long black coat and fur collar​, her hand nestled on her father’s shoulder as he sat in front of the crowd of cheering engineers. Top generals bowed before her.

“The photos are likely part of a carefully worked out program to show to North Koreans that Kim Ju-ae is going to become ​the ​successor,” said Cheong Seong-chang, a longtime researcher of the Kim family at the Sejong Institute in South Korea.

If Mr. Kim chose a daughter over a son as his heir apparent, it would be a highly unusual move in deeply patriarchal North Korea. But Mr. Kim himself was an unlikely choice to become the leader of the country.

As the youngest of three sons, Mr. Kim leapfrogged over his brothers when his father, Kim Jong-il, recognized his domineering attitude and tapped him as successor, according to analysts.

And although the North’s leadership is predominantly male, the regime under Mr. Kim includes a few prominent women, such as the outspoken anchorwoman Ri Chun-hee, Foreign Minister Choe Son-hui and Mr. Kim’s sister and spokeswoman Kim Yo-jong, who has issued a stream of belligerent threats against South Korea in recent months.

By ​revealing a possible successor early on, Mr. Kim may be trying to avoid the mistakes his father made, some analysts said.

A state media image of Mr. Kim and his daughter, Ju-ae. Some observers have speculated that the child is being prepared to succeed Mr. Kim.Credit…Korean Central News Agency, via Reuters

Kim Jong-il anointed Mr. Kim as heir when the son was still a child, but he kept it secret outside of his inner circle. Many analysts had speculated that Kim Jong-nam​ — the senior Kim’s eldest son and Mr. Kim’s half brother​ — would become his successor. ​Others said the father would pick Kim Jong-chol, Mr. Kim’s elder brother. Some even said the hereditary succession in North Korea would end with Kim Jong-il’s death.

Only after the father had a stroke in 2008 did North Korea start hinting that Mr. Kim ​was the chosen ​successor​. Ordinary North Koreans had never seen him until he appeared in state media in 2010​.

When his father died in 2011, there was much doubt, at home and abroad, about Mr. Kim’s ability to lead. It took years before he established his unchallenged authority through a series of bloody purges, including the execution of his own uncle and ​the assassination of his half brother.

A​fter he took power, ​Mr. Kim made ​his government and ​his family less secretive. ​His father​ was known for ​living with beautiful women, including Mr. Kim’s mother, but never introduced them to the public. One of the first things Mr. Kim did as leader was to make a public appearance with his wife, Ri Sol-ju.

Mr. Kim and Ms. Ri at a public appearance in Pyongyang, in a 2012 image provided by North Korean state media.Credit…Korean Central News Agency, via Reuters

By revealing a successor early, Mr. Kim may be “giving the successor enough time to prepare,” Mr. Cheong said. “He wants his successor to avoid the hurried, fast-track succession at home and the skepticism from the outside that he had to go through.”​

Most analysts agreed that by taking one of his children to events related to his arsenal, Mr. Kim was reminding the North’s people, especially its youth, that his family’s dynastic rule and nuclear weapons development would continue into the next generation.

But not everyone saw Ju-ae’s presence as a sign that she had been elevated in the family. “It’s premature to conclude that she is going to become the successor, especially if her father has a son,” said Ahn Chan-il, a defector from North Korea who runs a research institute in Seoul.

Tae Yong-ho, a former North Korean diplomat who fled to South Korea in 2016 and is now a lawmaker in Seoul, told reporters that the world would know that Mr. Kim had chosen a successor only when the North started idolizing a particular child as a godlike figure, as they did with Mr. Kim once his succession was made formal.

Mr. Kim has been promoting and firing top officials like pieces on a chessboard, frequently reshuffling his government. Last week, Pak Jong-chon, a top military official, was replaced. Those maneuverings have kept observers guessing, but such speculation is forbidden in the North’s tightly censored news media.

“North Koreans take hereditary rule by the Kim family for granted because they have never experienced free election,” Mr. Ahn said. “They are less interested in who rules them but more interested in who will make their life better than Kim Jong-un has.”

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