Seoul, South Korea
Father and daughter walk hand in hand next to a towering weapon of mass destruction.
That was The scene showed North Korea to the world on Saturday as state media released the first images of Kim Jong Un with an alleged child his daughter Ju Ae is inspecting something Experts say it is an ICBM.
North Korea said the missile was fired from Pyongyang International Airport on Friday was a Hwasong-17, a giant missile that could theoretically deliver a nuclear warhead to the mainland United States.
But even after Kim warned that his nuclear forces were ready to wage a “real war” with Washington and its allies South Korea and Japan, it was the girl, not the missile, that caught the world’s attention.
What did her presence at the launch mean? Could she be a possible successor to Kim? What does a 9-year-old girl have to do with nuclear weapons?
Leif-Eric Easley, associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, said the girl’s presence should be seen through a native lens.
“Outside of North Korea, it may seem absurd to pose for the cameras hand in hand with a child in front of a long-range missile designed to deliver a nuclear weapon to a distant city,” Easley said.
“But inside North Korea, an allegedly successful launch of the world’s largest road-mobile ICBM is cause for national celebration.”
Yang Moo-jin, president of the University of North Korean Studies in the South, also noted the domestic slant in Kim’s daughter’s pictures.
“By spending some time with his daughter, it seemed like he (Kim) wanted to show his family as a good and stable family and show himself as a leader for ordinary people,” Yang told Canadian broadcaster Global News.
The pictures also showed the girl as a key member of the Kim bloodline, Yang said.
Since its founding in 1948, North Korea has been ruled by Kim Il Sung as a hereditary dictatorship. His son, Kim Jong Il, took over after his father’s death in 1994. And Kim Jong Un took power 17 years later when Kim Jong Il died.
However, a short-term change in North Korea’s leadership is highly unlikely.
Kim Jong Un is only 38 years old. And even if an unexpected trouble were to take his life, Ju Ae is likely at least a decade or more away from replacing her father at the helm of North Korea’s state.
“I’m really not sure about the succession implications of introducing his daughter,” said Ankit Panda, senior fellow in the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“On the one hand, the public disclosure of (a) child by any North Korean leader cannot be taken lightly, but their underage status and role in the test has not been particularly slammed by the state media,” he said.
Panda noted that video released by North Korea of Friday’s ICBM launch could prove far more valuable to Western intelligence agencies than anything that could be gleaned from Kim’s daughter’s presence.
“The US has sophisticated sources and methods that give it tremendous insight into North Korea’s missiles, but the video may be helpful in creating a more complete model of missile performance,” he said.
“In the past, analysts have used video to infer the rocket’s acceleration during launch, which can help us identify its overall performance.”
According to Panda, it was only the third time since 2017 that Pyongyang has released video of a rocket launch.
“The North Koreans were much more transparent prior to 2017 when they were primarily concerned with the credibility of their nuclear deterrent,” he said.
While Friday’s test showed Pyongyang can launch a large ICBM and keep it aloft for more than an hour, North Korea has still not demonstrated the ability to place a warhead on a long-range ballistic missile — projectiles fired into space are capable of surviving fiery re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere before plunging to their destination.
But analysts say the North Koreans are refining their processes with their repeated testing. A missile believed to be a Hwasong-17 ICBM tested earlier this month failed in the early stages of its flight.
“The fact that (Friday’s test) did not detonate shows that they have made progress in addressing the technical issues that characterized previous tests,” said Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American scientists
What comes next from North Korea is unclear.
For much of this year, Western analysts and intelligence sources have been predicting North Korea will test a nuclear weapon, with satellite imagery showing activity at the nuclear test site. Such a test would be the first in Pyongyang in five years.
But Yang, the president of the University of North Korean Studies, told Global News that Friday’s test may have dampened the urgency of a nuclear test, at least for now.
“The likelihood of North Korea’s seventh nuclear test being conducted in November now seems a little low,” he said.
But another ICBM test could be Pyongyang’s response if the US continues to increase its military presence in the region and expand exercises with South Korea and Japan, he said.