Monday, 2 Oct 2023

Opinion | Why North Korea’s Princess Will Never Wear the Crown

SEOUL — For more than six months, Kim Jong-un, the leader of North Korea, has seemingly been giving the world an unprecedented glimpse into his private life. The first set of photos revealed a ponytailed girl in red shoes strolling hand in hand with Mr. Kim around a Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile. Later, she’s gazing into his eyes at a celebration for weapons scientists and tenderly patting his shoulder at a military parade. On May 16, the pair wore matching lab coats while inspecting a supposed spy satellite.

State media has released the daddy-daughter images on over a dozen occasions since November, assuredly choreographed from curls to gloves. Analysts consider them confirmation of a descendant, though none of the photos can be independently verified. The country has been in nearly complete isolation since the pandemic began. But the regime’s propaganda machine has stayed busy cranking out sajin jeongchi, or photography politics, resulting in buzz, questions and press.

Now that the country’s routine missile tests aren’t generating the headlines he craves, Mr. Kim appears to be leveraging his daughter’s global star power. “Chairman Kim is always hungry for attention, but he has been losing the spotlight,” says Kim Young-soo, who leads the North Korea Research Institute, referring to the last time the leader commanded the world media, during 2018 and 2019 meetings with President Donald Trump. The new photos with his daughter distract from Kim Jong-un’s failure to provide adequate food and energy for his people — and, according to Soo Kim of the Lowy Institute, keeps the international community from focusing on a long-term solution to the state’s nuclear capabilities.

What do we know about this girl? According to South Korean intelligence, her name is Ju-ae, she is about 10 years old, she is probably the leader’s middle child, and as a baby she was once held by the U.S. basketball star Dennis Rodman. Mostly everything else is speculation. A favorite debate among North Korea watchers: Is she the heir apparent?

Some signs point to yes. The regime has long been obsessed with portraits as part of the cult of personality concocted around each leader of North Korea. The intimate photos of Ju-ae with Mr. Kim could be considered an official endorsement. A successor should also be the embodiment of her or his predecessor, masterly in the regime’s military-first ideology — which the photos certainly seem to illustrate.

Ju-ae’s hereditary claim is also bolstered by decades of “embellished stories about the honorable revolutionary blood flowing through the family veins,” as a 1988 RAND report about the legitimacy of her grandfather Kim Jong-il put it. In February, state television emphasized her direct link to the Paektu bloodline, referring to the myth that her grandfather was born on the Korean Peninsula’s highest mountain, with footage of a white horse belonging to the leader’s “beloved” child. State media previously circulated photos of Kim Jong-un riding a white horse around Mount Paektu. Finally, Radio Free Asia recently reported that North Koreans named Ju-ae have been summoned to change their names; the same demand was made of people sharing the names of previous leaders.

Others point out that Ju-ae has no chance of succession. In a country of hidden agendas, historical and current events foreshadow her purpose and fate. Ultimately, this line of thinking goes, the country’s and dynasty’s entrenched patriarchal traditions and gender inequality will prove immovable.

From the country’s founder, Kim Il-sung, to Kim Jong-il and now Kim Jong-un, power in North Korea has been deliberately handed from father to son. Each man over three generations has been declared the supreme leader and ruled by a uniquely North Korean formula centered on him, the suryong. The state ideology, called juche, mixes socialism and Confucianism, a hierarchical system that ranks men above women and limits women’s activities. In the North’s socialist theory of the great family, society is an organism consisting of “the suryong (the great leader) as the nucleus, surrounded by the party and the people, each having an inseparable relation within a community bound by a common destiny,” Kim Won-hong wrote in a 2014 report, “Women of North Korea: A Closer Look at Everyday Life.” The nucleus, of course, is the head of the family, the patriarch.

For hundreds of years, Korean custom has designated the eldest son as heir; Kim Jong-un, the youngest son, was appointed only after his father rejected his two brothers. The odds aren’t in Ju-ae’s favor when, according to South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, Kim Jong-un is believed to have at least one son, her older brother, and a third child whose gender is not publicly known. North Korea is experiencing “a wind of change in gender,” says Koo Hae-woo, a former high-ranking agent with the spy agency, but he still expects only “a man at the top.”

Gender barriers are evident across North Korea, perhaps more so now than when the country was founded after World War II. To build his empire, Kim Il-sung promoted equal rights to galvanize women’s contributions to the economy and society. A law gave women the right to vote and run for office, and the Democratic Women’s Union was started. But in the 1990s, the state collapsed under an economic crisis and deadly famine. Families survived only because married women took upon themselves the dual roles of breadwinner and homemaker.

“Widespread gender stereotypes” remain the root cause of discrimination against women, according to the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea. “Women are called ‘flowers.’ Women’s appearance — clothes, hairstyle and even makeup — are subjected to control by the state,” wrote Elizabeth Salmón in her February report. She said gender violence is normalized: “Many women in the country have faced sexual assault and rape, particularly by men in positions of authority with total impunity.” Some 72 percent of the people who have fled to South Korea are women, the report said. A dozen female defectors who had been architects and doctors told me that while they could only sell scrap metal or work at public bathhouses in Seoul, they were happier and treated more fairly.

Long before Ju-ae, the Kim regime was spinning elite women into political symbols. In the 1970s, Kim Jong-il’s grandmother Kang Ban-sok and his mother, Kim Jong-suk, were featured as role models in the magazine Joseon Women. Ms. Kang was promoted as the “mother of all Koreans” through popular songs, paintings and revolutionary poetry. She consistently appeared wearing native Korean dress and a traditional hairstyle. The regime depicted Ms. Kim as “the mother of the revolution.” Women were educated to reproduce her virtuous womanhood and wifely devotion.

While Kim Jong-un keeps several women in his inner circle, they nonetheless serve his purposes. “Kim Jong-un has been an expert in utilizing his female entourage by giving them different roles,” says Yun Byung-se, a former foreign minister of South Korea. For example, his sister, Kim Yo-jong, plays the bad cop in diplomatic rows with the United States, while the first lady, Ri Sol-ju, acts as the “mother of the state.”

With Ju-ae, Mr. Kim wants North Koreans to know that future generations of the Paektu bloodline are ready to defend the dynasty, says Mr. Yun. And he wants to be seen as a “loving father to all his citizens,” says Choi Byung-seop, who spent three decades monitoring North Korean television for South Korea’s Unification Ministry. Mr. Kim has floated Ju-ae as a trial balloon to “test the reactions within and outside his regime,” Kim Young-soo says. Gauging elite society’s loyalty is a way to measure his power consolidation; showing off a daughter could mean he feels reasonably secure, Mr. Choi explains.

The photographs of Ju-ae reinforce what we already know about North Korea and also tell us more. She is just the latest in a line of elite females to be idolized and propagandized. In February the regime printed Ju-ae’s picture on five new postage stamps. We can only guess at the sincerity of Kim Jong-un putting all eyes on his daughter.

Chun Su-jin is a South Korean journalist with North Korean heritage. She has reported on the North for nearly two decades for JoongAng Ilbo, one of South Korea’s biggest newspapers. She is the author of “North Korean Women in Power: Daughters of the Sun.”

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