North Korea’s distant female leadership
The public profile of an almost-10-year-old Kim Ju Ae, daughter of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, at events celebrating the 75th anniversary of the North Korean military, raises interesting questions about the trajectory of the country’s future leadership.
Kim’s daughter attended a special banquet, and was seated in the center of the lead table between Kim and her mother. It was an unprecedented scene in the presence of dozens of North Korean army generals. In a country where the Kim family and the military are all powerful, the girl’s presence at such an important event sends clear signals. The connection between the family and the Korean military is unbreakable. The military serves the Kim dynasty.
The role of women in North Korea’s leadership hierarchy came into public view with the rise of Kim Yo Jong, the North Korean leader’s sister and youngest child of North Korea’s second supreme leader Kim Jong Il. Kim Yo Jong is already well known for her diplomatic presence, verbal barrages, and outright rudeness. North Korea’s foreign policy “star” is made all the more powerful by amplification of her support for Russia above all else.
Kim Ju Ae faces an interesting future as the daughter of the head of the Kim dynasty. Unlike other senior North Korean youth who may study abroad, Kim’s daughter faces a public unlike any of her elder relatives in Swiss schools. Her next decade of development under her father’s direction will mold this persona, along with her mother, Ri Sol Ju, who wears a SS missile pendant around her neck. Ri Sol Ju gave birth to her first child in 2010 and her second in about early 2013. She is believed to have had a third child in 2017.
Research shows that in the hereditary-ruled Mount Paektu bloodline of North Korea, successors are made public through state media, with Kim’s father and predecessor Kim Jong Il first publicly introduced in his late 30s. Kim Jong Un himself made his debut when he was in his 20s. As state media increasingly becomes more sophisticated, so too does the way that the North Korean leadership presents its potential next leader.
Some may make fun of “take your daughter to work day” but the fact is that North Korea is planning its future. The country sees itself as a global player, and is expected to be more assertive in the northeast Asian theater.
Between Aunt Kim Yo Jong, and a grown-up niece, Kim Ju Ae, the face of Korea will become increasingly female. How that impacts demographics and economics in North Korea, as well as where North Korea is in the long term, is an interesting question. Some have argued that North Korean women have acted on their agency deliberately, getting away with what they could while simultaneously skilfully avoiding the dire consequences of being identified as actors who dare to disrupt the status quo in the Kim-ruled country. This is where Aunt Kim Yo Jong comes into the picture. She is paving the way by her increasingly dramatic appearances, taunting South Korea, promising war against the US, and declaring frontline support for Russia in its invasion of Ukraine.
A future female North Korean leader can invigorate a drive for southern reunification, forcing a strategic loss for the country’s neighbors and supporters.
Dr. Theodore Karasik
There is an historical, cultural aspect to consider, not discussed much, but of possible value. Throughout history, the Korean Peninsula has faced many tribulations due to its neighbors, China and Japan. Korea is seen as a gateway into China by extension of the empire. With the birth of North Korea, the South remained in its continuing state of “invasion” complex, while the north solidified under “juche,” or “self-reliance.” There is a mysticism around a “Queen of Korea” that is part of folklore forecasting. Some might call this phenomenon shamanic, which in some sense the predilection is, given the older history of the Korean Peninsula, circa 13th century, with female figures. But there are current manifestations. The state-foundation myths have been adapted into several South Korean TV series in recent years, drawing the attention of millions. In addition, hundreds of shrines are dotted throughout South Korea, supporting these folkloric tales.
Currently, discussion of such phenomena is found among a particular section of the South Korean population who see reunification in the future. It is possible that as North Korea’s possible future leader Kim Ju Ae gets older, the “noise” about the predictions of a Queen of Korea coming true grows. North Korea knows this folklore well, and may be using some of its concepts as part of the future planning in finding sympathizers in the south to the notion of such a female leader.
Overall, a future female North Korean leader can invigorate a drive for southern reunification, forcing a strategic loss for the country’s neighbors and supporters. Hypothetically, the “queen” idea is a long-term plan, and, if it turns out true, will show that North Korean leader Kim has foresight on “gender as politics,” whether Kim Ju Ae ultimately becomes the country’s female leader or not.
• Dr. Theodore Karasik is a senior adviser to Gulf State Analytics in Washington. Twitter: @KarasikTheodore