North Korea: Kim Jong Un took his daughter to a missile launch, and no one is quite sure why

Seoul, South Korea

A father and daughter walk hand in hand near a towering weapon of mass destruction.

That was it the scene North Korea showed the world on Saturday, state media reported the first pictures of Kim Jong Un with child, believed to be his daughterJu Ae, inspecting what experts say it is intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

North Korea said the missile was fired from Pyongyang International Airport on Friday was the Hwasong-17, an enormous missile that could theoretically deliver a nuclear warhead to the continental United States.

But even after Kim warned that his nuclear forces were ready to engage in “real war” with Washington and its allies South Korea and Japan, it was the girl, not the missile, that grabbed the world’s attention.

What did her presence at the launch mean? Could she be a possible successor to Kim? What does an approximately 9-year-old girl have to do with nuclear weapons?

Leif-Erik Easley, an associate professor of international studies at Ewha Women’s University in Seoul, said the girl’s presence should be viewed through a domestic lens.

“Outside North Korea, it might seem crazy 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 in North Korea, the alleged successful launch of the world’s largest intercontinental ballistic missile is cause for national celebration.”

Yang Moo-jin, president of the University of North Korean Studies in the South, also noted the inward slant in depictions of Kim’s daughter.

“By showing some time with his daughter, it seemed that he (Kim) wanted to show his family as good and stable and show himself as a leader for normal people,” Yang said Canada’s Global News TV.

The images also portray the girl as a key member of Kim’s bloodline, Yang said.

North Korea: Kim Jong Un took his daughter to a missile launch, and no one is quite sure why

North Korea has been ruled as a hereditary dictatorship since its founding in 1948 by Kim Il Sung. 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.

But any short-term change in the North Korean leadership is highly unlikely.

Kim Jong Un is only 38 years old. And even if some unexpected problem were to take his life, Joo Ae is probably at least a decade or more away from replacing his father at the top of the North Korean state.

“I’m really not sure about the ramifications of putting forward his daughter for succession,” said Ankit Panda, a senior fellow in the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“On the one hand, the public exposure of (a) child cannot be taken lightly by any North Korean leader, but she is a minor and her role in the test was not particularly appreciated by the state media,” he said.

Panda noted that the video released by North Korea of ​​Friday’s ICBM launch could prove far more valuable to Western intelligence than anything gleaned from the presence of Kim’s daughter.

“The U.S. has sophisticated sources and methods that will give them tremendous insight into North Korea’s missiles, but the video could be useful in building a more complete model of the missile’s effectiveness,” he said.

“In the past, analysts have used videos to infer a missile’s launch acceleration, which can help us identify its overall effectiveness.”

North Korea's last ICBM launch on Friday, November 18, 2022.

It was only the third time Pyongyang has released a video of a missile launch since 2017, according to Panda.

“The North Koreans were significantly more transparent before 2017 when their primary concern was the reliability of their nuclear deterrent,” he said.

While Friday’s test showed Pyongyang could launch a large intercontinental ballistic missile and keep it in the air for more than an hour, North Korea has yet to demonstrate the ability to place a warhead on a long-range ballistic missile — projectiles that are launched in space—that is, capable of surviving a fiery re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere before plunging toward their destination.

But analysts say that with their repeated tests, the North Koreans are perfecting their processes. 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 explode shows that they have made progress in fixing the technical problems that have plagued previous tests,” said Hans Christensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists.

What comes next from North Korea is anybody’s guess.

For most of this year, Western analysts and intelligence sources have predicted that North Korea will test a nuclear weapon, with satellite images showing activity at the nuclear test site. Such a test would be Pyongyang’s first in five years.

But Yang, president of the University for North Korean Studies, told Global News that Friday’s test may have reduced any urgency for a nuclear test, at least for now.

“The possibility of North Korea’s seventh nuclear test being carried out in November seems a bit low now,” he said.

But another intercontinental ballistic missile test could be Pyongyang’s response if the U.S. continues to build up its military presence in the region and expand exercises with South Korea and Japan, he said.

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