SEOUL - Although the unexpected appearance of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s daughter raised speculation that she could be a successor in the making, analysts say it would be an unprecedented uphill struggle in the male-dominated dynasty.
Each change at the top in North Korea has raised the prospect of a leadership vacuum or collapse of the Kim dynasty, which has ruled the country since its founding in 1948.
Kim Jong Un's daughter - who was not named in state media - appeared in coverage of a ballistic missile launch on Saturday, watching the firing and holding her father's hand as he examined the missile. This provided the first official confirmation that Kim has children, and underscored a message that the family is here to stay, analysts said.
They cautioned that it is far too early to tell whether she is a successor or simply a symbol used to assure citizens that nuclear weapons would protect children and be "monuments to be passed down to our descendants for generations," as state media reported.
Chun Su-jin, the South Korean author of a book on North Korean women leaders, said the chance of North Korean elites welcoming Kim's daughter as ruler is close to zero.
"It is not ready to welcome a leader of the other gender," she said. "(Kim) is just staging a show that he is a loving father, not just a brutal dictator who shoots missiles."
Others argue that despite North Korea’s deeply patriarchal society, gender may not disqualify a daughter or other woman from taking the reins.
Barring a sudden health problem that leads to his incapacitation or death, there is a fair amount of time before Kim, believed to be nearly 40, needs to consider a successor, said Michael Madden, director of North Korea Leadership Watch.
“That gives ample time for North Korea's political culture to change and create the conditions for a female successor,” Madden said.
Kim has elevated several powerful women around him, including his sister, Yo Jong, and Choe Son Hui, the country’s first woman foreign minister.
"Kim Jong Un belongs to a different generation than his grandfather and his father, and in some ways, he appears more receptive to change than his forefathers," said Rachel Minyoung Lee of the 38 North research organisation.
According to Yonhap news agency, South Korean intelligence officials believe the girl seen on Friday is a daughter identified as Ju Ae by former American basketball player Dennis Rodman, who spent time with Kim's family in 2013. She would be about 12-13 years old, and is one of an estimated three children of Kim Jong Un, Madden said.
If Kim has any sons, they could still have an advantage to continue the male-centric “Mt. Paektu bloodline,” Lee said, referring to a volcano on the Chinese border that plays a central role in the ruling party's mythology.
Women have held senior roles in North Korea over the years, but Kim Jong Il passed over several older daughters and sons to anoint Kim Jong Un, despite speculation at the time that his second daughter could be his successor, Madden noted.
The increased participation of North Korean women in elite politics does not necessarily indicate change to the broader social or political systems, 38 North said in a 2020 report.
North Korea is deeply isolated from world geopolitics and is under UN sanctions for its weapons programmes, which include nuclear bombs.
According to human rights activists, sexual and gender-based violence remains “endemic”, and COVID-19 border lockdowns and restrictions on previously growing market economies have been particularly hard on the women, who made up much of that workforce.
"In North Korea, gender is still important to be a leader," said Hyun In-ae, a North Korean defector who now works at the Ewha Institute of Unification Studies in Seoul.
PATH TO LEADERSHIP
When rumours and speculation arose in 2020 about Kim Jong Un’s health, his sister was seen a possible placeholder to take over the family dynasty until one of Kim’s children was old enough.
Believed to be in her early 30s, Kim Yo Jong is the leader’s only close relative with a public role in politics, spearheading a new, tougher campaign to put pressure on South Korea and in some cases operating as a "de facto" second in command, according to South Korean intelligence.
Based on previous leaders, any children will need education and on the job experience before they can be considered for supreme leadership, and in about 10 years we can expect her to have begun an official career, Madden said.
If, over the next decade, Kim's daughter becomes closely associated with economic development and the missile and nuclear weapons programmes, then the North Korean political and military apparatus could position her as the promising next generation of the Paektu line, said Darcie Draudt of the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs.
"Bottom line: the bloodline, and military and economic development bona fides, matter more than gender in the fourth generation of the Kim Dynasty," she said.
(Reporting by Josh Smith; Additional reporting by Daewoung Kim. Editing by Gerry Doyle)