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North Korea’s unlikely leader

North Korea’s unlikely leader


There has been speculation about whether Kim Jong-un’s young daughter is being lined up to succeed him. But it is more likely that Kim Ju Ae’s public appearances are designed to be a distraction from North Korea’s problems.

[Sound effects of celebrations in North Korea]

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is standing on a balcony at midnight, he’s looking out onto thousands of soldiers who are lining the streets of the capital city, Pyongyang.

He looks smart in a black coat and hat, music is playing and fireworks are erupting around him.

He’s watching a massive parade to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the country’s military, featuring more intercontinental ballistic missiles than North Korea has ever displayed before.

But the foreign media are focussed on something else…

“For the second time this week, this is interesting, Kim also put his daughter and possible heir on display.”


Dressed like her father, Kim Jong-un’s middle child stands beside him, cupping his face in a loving display.

Not much is known about her, because the highly-secretive state keeps information about the first family very private. But experts think she’s about nine or ten years old.

She’s thought to be called Kim Ju-ae, but that hasn’t been confirmed. It was only made public because former basketball player Dennis Rodman, who is a friend of Kim Jong-un, leaked it to the press…

“He’s my friend, I love him.”

Dennis Rodman

Kim Ju-ae was first seen in public last November, hand-in-hand with her father, standing in front of North Korea’s largest ballistic missile. 

In the few months since she’s been seen several times, which has led to whispers that she’s being lined up to succeed.

“Experts analysing every picture, every article for clues about the possible next North Korean leader, all of it, likely before her 10th birthday.”


So is there any truth to the rumours?


“I lived and worked in North Korea in the late 1990s, early two thousands for a couple of years // and have visited quite a lot of times since.”

Hazel Smith

This is Hazel Smith. She’s an academic who has been studying North Korea for over 30 years. 

“Well, there’s always something, whether it’s Kim Jong Un or whether it was his father or whether it was his grandfather. There were always stories in the press, uh, about who is going to be the successor and when. Often, they’re quite ludicrous, as in my view.”

Hazel Smith

Hazel Smith says information about the Kim family is incredibly restricted. We’re not even certain how many children they have.

But the South Korean intelligence services, who know more about their difficult neighbour than any other country in the world, say there is no evidence that any of Kim Jong-un’s descendants are being groomed for leadership. 

“I think this is a question of logic, and you, you don’t need to be somebody who’s worked on North Korea for 30 years, as I have to be, you know, having a fairly reasonable and sensible analysis of this is that the political leadership, will be chosen in the future. We’re not talking about the 10 year old leading the country right now.”

Hazel Smith

To her, it’s obvious why these headlines are misguided – Kim Jong-un is only 39, and still able to lead. His daughter is a young child. 

And Hazel Smith thinks reporting on this has favoured clicks over real analysis.

“One of the problems with the international media coverage of North Korea is that it is seems to be led by A) the most sensationalist interpretation of photos that come out of North Korea or media that comes out of North Korea, and B) that these photos and the coverage completely un-contextualised. We’ve actually got a lot of knowledge about North Korea over the last 30 years. So we know, for instance, that the 26 million people population of North Korea, fairly big country, international terms, the same size population as Australia. We know that starvation has reemerged, we know that that young people, a couple of million children under seven right now, this year, are at risk of starvation and some suffering from starvation. And we know the reasons for that is that the un sanction. That were expanded in 2016 and 2017 to cover every area of the economy, including the food economy.”

Hazel Smith


Hazel Smith’s description of North Korea as a country facing mass starvation and harsh 

sanctions feels a far cry from the lavish military parade that the Kims attended. But she says that’s the point.

“You might think that the North Korean government would want to have a discussion about the impact of sanctions on North Koreans, but it doesn’t because it doesn’t want to admit that the sanctions have had any negative economic impact on North Korea at all. Because it doesn’t want to admit that it has any vulnerabilities or weaknesses. So while it portrays, sends out pictures of a happy, well-fed family, dressed in quite nice clothing with a background of missiles, this is meant to give a focus to the international media that you have a stable country, with armaments, with a stable government, with a family that is in control… As it has been for the last 70 odd years since the, since the country was created. And  it’s done that very successfully. It prevents or seems to have prevented the international media from looking at the real issues.”

Hazel Smith

She says North Korea also faces serious medical and labour shortages and these issues primarily affect North Korea’s most vulnerable people – children, pregnant women, the elderly and the sick.    

We also know that last year Kim Jong-un called for an increase in North Korea’s nuclear arsenal in response to so-called threats from South Korea and the United States.

Hazel Smith says the coverage of a potential 10-year-old successor ignores all of this.

“I mean, can we imagine if, for instance, the leadership in Russia today started sending out pictures of President Putin with his children and grandchildren? I don’t think that that would stop journalists looking into the minutiae of the Ukraine war and the suffering of Russians and ordinary Russians, and of course, Ukrainians. It shouldn’t prevent them asking the real questions about what’s going on in the country to the, to the majority of the population.”

Hazel Smith


This episode was written by Patricia Clarke and mixed by Rebecca Moore.