Shouldn’t Kim Ju-ae be in school?

11-year-old Kim Ju-ae visits Navy Headquarters with her father. Image | Rodong Sinmun

As Kim Jong-un intensifies the confrontation with South Korea, he appears to be raising the profile of his 11-year-old daughter, Ju-ae.

Is he positioning her as his successor? In contrast to his own appointment, which was relatively sudden, are we seeing a repeat of the slow-motion anointment over a long period that her grandfather, Kim Jong-il, experienced? Some people think this is exactly what is happening.

A high-ranking North Korean defector named Oh, who asked that her identity not be disclosed, recently shared her perspective on this issue with journalists.

“There’s much discussion regarding whether Kim Ju-ae can really become the next leader as she is a girl,” she said. “But this talk stems from a lack of understanding about North Korea. The fact she is a daughter holds no significance.”

To make this point, Oh shared the story of a former colleague in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Kim was a senior bureaucrat. One day, his father-in-law, also a high-ranking official, was found guilty of something and banished from Pyongyang. To avoid being tainted by association, Kim was forced to divorce his wife. He married a widow. He did this very quickly and soon his new wife was pregnant.

Then tragedy struck, at least as far as Kim was concerned. The father-in-law was cleared. The accusations against him were found to have been false. Kim Jong-il, the leader at that time, had personal knowledge of the case and instructed that everything be restored to its previous state. The father-in-law recovered his reputation, got his job back and returned to his house in Pyongyang. His daughter had to get remarried to Kim. All of this happened in 18 months. Kim’s second wife would often linger a distance away from the entrance of the Foreign Ministry to get a glimpse of him.

This bizarre and tragic situation captures reality for North Koreans. Regardless of who they are, they live in contradiction. Given this, what does it matter to them whether Kim Ju-ae is a son or a daughter?

Kim Sung-min, the representative of Free North Korea Radio, agreed. When journalists asked him if Kim Ju-ae would be the next leader, he responded with a definite, “Of course.”

“You should see Kim Jong-un’s siblings and relatives as side branches,” he explained. “North Korea has a system that eliminates them from public attention. Side branches are never promoted in society or in the media. This was the case in Kim Jong-il’s time and it’s the same under Kim Jong-un. For example, according to our sources inside North Korea, citizens don’t know anything about Kim’s brother, Jong-chul, or his half-brother, Jong-nam, murdered in Malaysia.

Further, he said, they don’t actually know Kim Ju-ae’s name. “She is being promoted and they’ve seen her images but it seems Kim Jong-un is keeping her actual name from being publicized.”

He said that North Korea is such a complete dictatorship that even if Kim Jong-un were to have presented her as the successor as a 5-year-old, the populace would have instantly chanted “Long live Kim Ju-ae.”

Kim Ju-ae is a confident princess in a slave state. This much can be deduced from her hairstyle and fashion.

A teacher named Cho, 48, who defected in March 2023, says ordinary students are not allowed to grow their hair beyond shoulder length. The strictly enforced limit is 5 cm below the ears. He believes the reason Kim Ju-ae is permitted to grow her hair so long is to differentiate her from other students.

Her fashion serves the same purpose. Sunglasses and leather jackets are the dictator style inherited from her grandfather.

The highlighting of Ju-ae underscores a particular theme of the Kim dynasty. That is their contempt for education.

As an 11-year-old, of course, Ju-ae should be at school rather than indulging in her dictator father’s princess play. Nobody in North Korea would dare say that, though. Not only because it would be life-threateningly presumptuous. But also because the Kims don’t put great stock in learning. That goes back a way.

Kim Il-sung, the grandfather of Kim Jong-un, apparently went against the dying wishes of his own father about getting an education and failed to complete middle school. This scene of the father’s appeal appears in the North Korean movie “Dawn.” Kim Il-sung’s mother honors her husband’s desire and sends her son to school but he drops out.

It is claimed that Kim Jong-il attended university. But strictly speaking, it’s not an exaggeration to say he didn’t really complete middle school. He was more interested in political activities than in studying.

Even if he did attend classes, teachers would be afraid to challenge him as part of the natural teaching process. Another defector named Jung, who settled in South Korea in 2022, heard from acquaintances whose fathers attended the same school as Kim Jong-il that some teachers disappeared overnight after “making mistakes” in his classes. Another defector who knew someone who went to university with him, said Kim hardly ever turned up.

Kim Jong-un seems to be carrying on this tradition. A defector who taught for 20 years in North Korea recounted a peculiar incident at the Kim Il Sung Military University (where Kim supposedly completed a five-year program in just four months) when Kim took over a class and taught a lesson on “modern warfare and punctuality” after an instructor arrived three minutes late for a session on artillery.

The point here is not that the leadership needs to be super-academic. It’s that the Kims are not noted for being smart. Kim’s Jong-un’s lack of education is directly connected to his policy failures in governing the country.

We might just wonder what policies Kim Ju-ae might pursue. If she continues to be denied normal education, it is likely her rule would only make North Koreans poorer.

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