A new ballistic missile with the range to hit all of the United States is a hard thing to upstage. But North Korean leader Kim Jong Un did just that with a surprise guest at the test-launch: his little-known daughter.
Kim revealed his daughter to the world for the first time Saturday in images showing the pair hand-in-hand at the missile launch site, an unexpected appearance that raises the prospect of a fourth generation of Kims taking leadership of the secretive state — and its growing nuclear arsenal.
North Korean state media said that Kim had observed the launch of the state’s new type of intercontinental ballistic missile with his wife, Ri Sol Ju, other officials, and his “beloved daughter” on Friday.
Kim said the launch of the nuclear-capable Hwasong-17 missile proved he has a reliable weapon to contain U.S-led military threats, and the U.S. responded by flying supersonic bombers in a show of force.
It was the latest escalation in months of provocations from Pyongyang, but attention was suddenly focused on the daughter whose existence had never been publicly confirmed before.
North Korea’s Rodong Simmun newspaper revealed a series of images of Kim and his daughter, who wore a puffy white coat and red shoes to observe the soaring missile from a distance with her father.
State media did not name the girl or disclose her age. It is the first confirmed public appearance of a child of the North Korean leader, whose personal life remains shrouded in mystery
Kim Jong Un, 38, is the third generation of the Kim dynasty to rule over the reclusive state but has not publicly declared an heir, making the identities of his children a source of strong outside interest. Kim is believed to have three children, born between 2010 and 2017, with his wife Ri, a former singer.
In 2013, retired NBA star Dennis Rodman said Kim had a “baby” daughter named Ju Ae, who he spent time with on a seaside vacation with the Kim family. It wasn’t immediately clear which child was shown in the photos.
“This is the first observed occasion where we have seen Kim Jong Un’s daughter at a public event” Michael Madden, a North Korean leadership expert at the Stimson Center, told Reuters. “It is highly significant and represents a certain degree of comfort on Kim Jong Un’s part that he would bring her out in public in such fashion."
Some analysts suggested that tying his daughter so closely to the development of the country's nuclear program was the latest signal to the world that North Korea has no plans to give up its arsenal.
The images were the “optics of handing down a legacy,” said Jenny Town of 38 North, a Washington-based North Korea research organization, on Twitter.
“For those thinking #NorthKorea was just upping the ante to re-enter negotiations, this seems to suggest otherwise. Just as declarations about the nuclear program are no longer conditional — this seems to reinforce the nuke program is here to stay,” she said.
There may also have been a domestic purpose behind the big reveal, however.
“Including his wife and especially his daughter ‘soften’ the image, at least [maybe] for domestic audience” added John Delury, a professor of Chinese Studies at Yonsei University in Seoul, on Twitter. “This is not a warmonger or narcissistic Little Rocket Man. He’s a good Dad, protecting his family, like he protects the Nation,” said Delury.
The Kim cult of personality has long been dependent on the image of the supreme leaders as “fathers” of the nation. Propaganda images of Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, who founded North Korea, frequently depict him alongside children. Candy and sweet gifts for children are often distributed on the leader’s birthday, if resources allow.
Yet Kim Jong Un rarely makes reference to his own family.
In 2020, U.S. officials and South Korean media speculated that Kim went through a period of ill-health after undergoing heart surgery. North Korea have never announced who would follow Kim if he became incapacitated, with analysts theorizing that his sister and loyalists could form a regency until a successor in his direct line was old enough to take over.
Bringing his daughter to the missile test site was a move for an “elite audience,” Madden told Reuters, potentially introducing the fourth generation of the hereditary succession.
The Japanese defense minister said that the missile had the potential to reach anywhere in the United States.
Vice President Kamala Harris, who is in Bangkok for a regional forum, said the launch was a “brazen violation” of United Nations Security Council resolutions and called on North Korea to “stop further unlawful destabilizing acts.”
Friday’s family affair was North Korea’s eighth ICBM launch this year, according to the state department.
South Korean and U.S officials now say the North is preparing to conduct its seventh nuclear test, which would be its first since 2017 and a significant escalation of tensions with Washington and its allies.