Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on Daily NK’s Korean website in June 2023.
Recently, there has been increasing interest in Kim Jong Un’s rumored son. Many are speculating about why Kim has only brought his daughter Ju Ae out in public, with some suggesting that Ju Ae is actually his eldest child while others believe that Kim’s son may be too young to be made public. This is a very intriguing topic of discussion.
It is hard to ignore media coverage with testimonies from individuals and sources who have met with Kim Jong Un or assessments from leading North Korea experts. However, due to the highly classified nature of the North Korean royal family, it is impossible to fully guarantee the accuracy of any of this information unless it is disclosed by individuals within the North Korean leadership or by government authorities. Moreover, intelligence agencies around the world, including South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS), do not confirm such details, which are deemed sensitive.
I have tried to keep a close eye on the movements of the North Korean royal family. My current theory on North Korea’s future succession is based on two things:
- The North Korean succession system is set up so that only members of the Kim family can succeed each other in perpetuity.
- In Korean society, children take the surnames of their fathers, so if Kim Ju Ae succeeds her father, her offspring (the fifth-generation heir) would lose the “Kim” family name.
Keeping these key factors in mind, I speculate that one of Kim Jong Un’s sons will eventually succeed him. There is no need to argue this point, it is simply a matter of when and how.
However, after fielding questions about the succession issue from reporters, I have decided to put forth my own thoughts on the matter of Kim Jong Un’s son. I would like to emphasize that this article is based solely on my personal analysis and is not influenced by any data or evaluations from institutions or organizations that I am affiliated with.
Controversies surrounding Kim Jong Un’s son
The prevailing theory on the DPRK’s royal family is that Kim Jong Un has three children: an eldest son born in 2010, his middle daughter Ju Ae born in 2013, and a youngest son born in 2017. Recently, however, Ju Ae has often been seen accompanying Kim at public events, leading many to speculate about the actual number of kids Kim has and the line of succession.
There are two main theories regarding North Korea’s succession, the “Kim Ju Ae succession theory” and “the unconfirmed eldest son theory.” Well-known proponents of the Kim Ju Ae theory include Cheong Seong-Chang (director of the Center for Korean Peninsula Strategy at the Sejong Research Institute) and Jeong Se-Hyun (a former minister of unification). By comparison, the “eldest son” camp includes Koh Yo-Hwan (president of the Korea Institute for National Unification), Michaelo João (a close friend of Kim Jong Un during Kim’s study abroad in Bern in the 1990s), and Chris Volo (manager for Dennis Rodman, a basketball star who has met with Kim four times).
I will not be discussing the “Kim Ju Ae succession theory” in this article. I have already addressed why I don’t think she is likely to be Kim Jong Un’s successor in my previous articles “Kim Jong Un’s Successor” (Daily NK Korean, Feb. 2, 2023) and “Kim Jong Un’s Daughter Makes a Cameo” (Daily NK Korean, Dec. 16, 2022), as well as in my booklet “Towards the World, the Future, and Unification” (BookLab, March 2023).
And while the “Kim Jong Un’s unconfirmed eldest son” theory is certainly intriguing, there is no definitive “smoking gun” or other evidence to support it. No one has been able to ask Kim Jong Un whether or not he has a son or heard him speak about “all” of his children. As a result, this speculation is rooted primarily in the fact that we have only seen him bring Ju Ae to public functions. As such, there are clear limits to this theory.
“When Kim Jong Un first invited one of his old classmates from Bern, Michaelo João, to visit North Korea in 2012, he told [Michaelo] that his wife was pregnant. When Michaelo went back to North Korea again in 2013, he was told that Kim had had a daughter, but said that there was no talk about a son.” (RFA, May 24, 2023)
“President of the Korea Institute for National Unification Koh Yu-Hwan told a group of reporters at the Ministry of Unification on [May] 26, ‘Personally, I think it’s more likely that Ju Ae is the eldest child. Whether she is the successor or not will be confirmed later, but I think she is still in the running.’ He went on to compare Kim Jong Un bringing Ju Ae around with him as similar to what Kim Il Sung did to Kim Jong Il [when priming him to be his successor].” (Munhwa Ilbo, May 26, 2023)
“Chris Volo, Dennis Rodman’s manager who traveled with him to North Korea four times, spent about a week with the Kim family, including Kim’s younger sister, at their Wonsan villa in early September 2013. At the time, [Volo claimed] ‘we were the first people in the world that [Kim] told about his daughter, and he even allowed us to hold her. She was so young that she couldn’t even crawl.’ At the time, [Volo] said he saw no signs of anything connected to a [possible] son.” (RFA, May 30, 2023)
Views from South Korea’s intelligence community
Out of concern for source protection and counterintelligence operations, national intelligence agencies generally follow the NCND (“can neither confirm nor deny”) principle and do not confirm sensitive matters. However, we do know that South Korea’s NIS reported the existence of an eldest son at a private briefing for the National Assembly’s Intelligence Committee.
“The People Power Party Assemblyman Yoo Sang-bom said that the NIS reported to the National Assembly Intelligence Committee in March that while it had no concrete evidence, information shared by other [countries’] intelligence agencies led the NIS to believe with a high degree of certainty that Kim’s [first born] child was a son.” (Yonhap News, May 26, 2023)
However, (Editor’s note: now former) Ministry of Unification Kwon Young-Se and a government official who spoke anonymously have commented that observers should not rule out the possibility that Kim Jon Un may not have a son.
“At the general meeting of the National Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee on Feb. 15, the Minister of Unification [Kwon Young-se] said that taking several factors into account, he can see North Korea making preparations to hand off the country to the fourth generation. However, the minister erred on the side of caution when responding to whether or not he felt Kim Ju Ae would be next in line, stating that there was no evidence allowing them to confirm the existence of any children besides Kim Ju Ae, including an older son. He could only reiterate that aside from Kim’s daughter Kim Ju Ae, it is believed but has not been confirmed that Kim has two more children, an older son and a youngest child of unknown gender. He said that he could not confirm with any certainty that Kim Jong Un’s [eldest] son exists.” (Chosun Ilbo, February 16, 2023)
“A senior government official also met with reporters on May 22, and speaking from personal opinion, said that [they] were not sure whether [Kim] had a firstborn before Ju Ae, and if so, whether [the eldest] was a son.” (Yonhap News, May 26, 2023)
Inferences and conclusions
As I mentioned earlier, information about Kim Jong Un’s children is highly classified. Unlike his father, after taking power Kim Jong Un has publicly been accompanied by his wife (Ri Sol Ju) and daughter (Kim Ju Ae) to official events, however, the rest of his family remains shrouded in secrecy.
“Tae Yong-Ho, a former North Korean diplomat turned South Korean politician, has said that he too cannot confirm whether or not Kim Jong Un’s eldest child is a son or a daughter. ‘I can say that up until I defected to the South in 2016, I had never heard any talk of Kim Jong Un having a son. However, I can’t say that he does not have a son just because I never heard about him. In North Korea, matters concerning the children of the Kim family, particularly anything regarding the leader’s succession, are closely guarded secrets.’” (News1, February 2, 2023)
The recent doubts about the existence of Kim Jong Un’s eldest son were triggered by comments made by Minister of Unification Kwon Young-Se in February 2023. However, there has been no conclusive information or announcement that would challenge the NIS’s report to the National Assembly in March. Even if there is no eldest son, this is not something that the intelligence agencies would be able to confirm publicly due to the separation of the administrative branch and intelligence agencies.
Four years or so ago, I wrote a booklet titled Analysis of Kim Jong Un (Sonin, April 2019). At the time, I was not in a professional position to receive any fresh intelligence, so I developed its content solely by conducting a psychological analysis of North Korean and domestic literature. Today, I would like to use this same method to speculate on the existence of Kim Jong Un’s son.
The main elements of my reasoning can be summarized in three points:
- Kim Jong Un most likely has an eldest son who is being brought up behind the scenes.
- Kim Jong Un is raising his children in a manner that differs significantly from how his father raised him.
- Kim Jong Un’s daughter, Ju Ae, will not become his successor.
1) The likelihood of Kim Jong Un having an eldest son
First, in patriarchal Confucian cultures ruled by hereditary succession, sons and grandchildren are often seen as symbols of marriage. Kim Jong Un married Ri Sol Jo in 2009. Similar to South Korea before the 1990s, couples typically have children immediately after marriage in North Korean culture. Additionally, North Koreans do not commonly use birth control. Therefore, if Kim Ju Ae (born in 2013) is their eldest child, it suggests that the Kims were childless for a significant period after their marriage. Considering that they have now had (a rumored) three children, the possibility of Ri Sol Ju or Kim Jong Un being infertile is low.
Secondly, the NIS’s own intelligence estimates contributed to my belief in the “unconfirmed eldest son theory.” Naturally, after his marriage to Ri Sol Ju, when the NIS weighed the possibility of the existence of the eldest son, South Korean intelligence likely considered a wide range of information. One key piece of evidence at the time was reports that the Secretariat (the department responsible for acquiring luxury goods for the Kim family from overseas) appeared to be purchasing childbirth and infant supplies.
Thirdly, it’s not logically sound to completely rule out the existence of a son based on Kim Ju Ae’s public behavior alone. A daughter is a daughter, and a son is a son. Kim’s daughter is a good symbol of youth, peace, and the future (“Nuclear weapons are an all-purpose sword to be handed down to all generations”). She also has the unique advantage of portraying Kim Jong Un as a loving father figure while reinforcing the legitimacy of the Kim family’s perpetual succession.
What if Kim Jong Un had brought a son with him instead of Ju Ae? Considering the spate of rumors surrounding Kim’s health, it would have been akin to “pouring gasoline onto a fire.”
2) Shunning his father’s style of upbringing
Although he wanted for nothing materially, Kim Jong Un grew up in emotionally and mentally challenging circumstances. When he was younger, his grandfather (Kim Il Sung) did not recognize him as a legitimate child and forced young Kim to live in Wonsan and other residences outside of the official residence in Pyongyang. Likewise, he was not allowed to go to school and received a private education. Unable to interact with peers his own age, Kim turned to hanging out with his older bodyguards and cooks. To make matters worse, Kim was further isolated by being sent to study abroad in Switzerland against his will. In other words, it was not an easy journey.
With his history in mind, my personal analysis of Kim Jong Un is that he may have a strong “bastard-Oedipus complex.” This is evident in his public behavior since coming to power, which has been the complete opposite of his father Kim Jong Il, including his treatment of his wife, his public speeches, purging his father’s designated “guardians,” and the abolition of the songun line (military-first policy) established by his father.
Kim Jong Un ascended to the position of supreme leader through a third-generational patrilineal succession, which prevented him as heir from publicly criticizing his predecessor. In practice, however, North Korea has completely transformed into a “Kim Jong Un-style country.” Given this level of control, it is likely that Kim Jong Un is following a different path in educating his children. This might involve allowing them to live with him in the official Pyongyang Residence, sending them to regular schools with bodyguards (so they can socialize with their peers), and supplementing them with special tutoring (focused on cultivating them for future leadership roles).
3) Kim Ju Ae’s role has clear limitations
Let us consider the following scenario: a parent (person in charge) has a young child in their early teens who they expect to succeed them in the future. What is the natural thing for that parent to do? Educate them. The early teen years are a time for children to be focusing on their studies. It is not the time to attend public events to gain hands-on experience, especially for a child as young as Kim Ju Ae who has just turned 10.
I believe that Kim Jong Un making public appearances with his daughter since last year can be attributed to the fact that Kim Jue Ae is an optimal character to both grab attention and serve as the marketer of efforts aimed at ensuring the Kim dynasty will continue forever.
To summarize, while Kim Jong Un suffers from morbid obesity and anxiety, we must not forget that at 39 years old, he is still a young leader. Based on the theory of succession, the nature of the North Korean political system, and past experience, I believe that Kim’s most logical successor will be his eldest son. If Kim Jong Un either did not have a son in 2010 or there is some sort of complication with his eldest son, the title of fourth-generation leader will be passed on to his son born in 2017. In this process, Kim Yo Jong, Kim’s emotional and political confidante, will likely act as the regime’s “libero” (a key player with no fixed position) as a manager of the Mt. Baekdu Bloodline and her brother’s political and emotional partner.
Translated by Matthew Eteuati, Jr. Edited by Robert Lauler.
Views expressed in this guest column do not necessarily reflect those of Daily NK.
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February 12, 2024 at 03:00PM
by DailyNK(North Korean Media)