North Korea has long sought to convince its own people that the U.S. and South Korea are its mortal enemies, leaving the nation no choice but to develop advanced weapons for self-protection. Analysts are questioning whether that closed society is giving leader Kim Jong Un’s daughter a similarly constricted view of the outside world.
Kim Ju Ae, believed to be about 10, has been spotted at military events with her father about 10 times since he introduced her to the public on November 18, a little girl standing in front of a gigantic Hwasong-17 ICBM at a launch site.
Most recently, she accompanied Kim as he was overseeing simulated nuclear counterattack drills on March 18-19, the test of a Hwasong-17 intercontinental ballistic missile on March 16, and artillery firing drills on March 9, according to North Korea’s state media KCNA.
The father-daughter visits to missile sites and military events are “an indoctrinating moment for her,” said Michael Madden, an expert on North Korean leadership at the Stimson Center. He said she is probably told that “the missiles guarantee … the continuity of the Kim family regime.”
The Kim regime spans three generations, with power passing from Kim Il Sung to Kim Jong Il and then to the father of the girl who represents the fourth generation.
Madden added that rather than being raised to see the world in shades of gray, Ju Ae is absorbing “a black-and-white way of viewing things, and that South Korea and the United States are our enemies and have been our enemies for 70-plus years.”
Kim is presenting her with this worldview to raise her as an elite member of Pyongyang’s top ranks, if not as his successor who would continue the regime’s authoritarian rule, suggested Ken Gause, a North Korean leadership expert and director of International Affairs Group, a part of the Strategic Studies division of the U.S.-based CNA Corporation.
“There is a part of running North Korea that is very cutthroat,” Gause said. “The less you know about how democracies run” and “to a certain extent, the less you know about the outside world, probably the better.”
Almost all the events Ju Ae attended have involved the military, a sign that she is “being placed in the context of the Korean People’s Army,” said Madden. “This could be read as a continuation of the partisan, guerrilla legacy of her great-grandfather Kim Il Sung,” who founded the regime.
A soccer match she attended with her father in February set the Defense Ministry team against a team composed of Cabinet members.
Even a groundbreaking ceremony for a new street in an apartment complex in Pyongyang that she attended with Kim in February had a military twist. Members of the Youth League, which is tied to the KPA, were assigned to construct the buildings, according to Madden.
For Ju Ae to be presented with the regime’s narrative suggests she is not completely exempt from being brainwashed like the rest of the North Korean people, experts said.
North Korea is considered one of the most repressive countries in the world, denying its people freedom of information, expression and thought or opinion, according to a 2022 report by Human Rights Watch.
The regime strictly “controls virtually all information within the country” and prohibits “ordinary citizens from listening to foreign media broadcasts,” according to the State Department’s 2022 report on human rights practices in North Korea.
A law adopted in December 2020, designed to preserve North Korea’s socialist ideology, authorizes up to a death sentence for those caught distributing media from South Korea and the U.S.
On Thursday, South Korea’s Unification Ministry released a report detailing North Korean defectors’ accounts of human rights situations in the country from 2017 to 2022, including crackdowns on distributing and watching foreign media contents.
The regime indoctrinates its people with one-sided narratives via propaganda messages at schools and workplaces, and through state-owned media tightly controlled by the Propaganda and Agitation Department of the ruling Workers’ Party, according to a report by the U.S. State Department.
Former high-ranking officials in Pyongyang who defected to South Korea say ordinary North Koreans lack the information needed to form their own opinions of Ju Ae’s outings in high-end outerwear.
A black velvet coat with quilted stitching she wore to the ICBM launch on March 16 appeared to come from the French luxury brand Christian Dior and cost $2,800, according to a report by The Washington Post.
“Ordinary North Koreans [seeing the pictures of Ju Ae] will not know she is wearing Dior,” said Ryu Hyun Woo, a former North Korean acting ambassador to Kuwait since 2017 who defected to South Korea with his family in 2019.
No frame of reference
“They don’t know what Dior is or it costs over $2,000 unless they are told,” he continued in an interview with VOA’s Korean Service earlier this week. “They might think it could cost a lot, but they don’t have any reference to compare it with, even to become angry” at the regime.
Another high-profile North Korean defector, who prefers to remain anonymous to avoid attracting the regime’s attention, told the Korean Service, “North Korean residents can’t fathom how expensive the coat is because they are going hungry and don’t have enough food to eat.”
Chronic food shortages have plagued North Korea since a famine killed an estimated hundreds of thousands of people in the mid-1990s. Although it is difficult to accurately assess current conditions, many experts believe the COVID-19 pandemic worsened food insecurity.