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

Seoul, South Korea

Father and daughter walking hand in hand near a towering weapon of mass destruction.

It was the scene North Korea showed the world on Saturday when state media released the first photos of Kim Jong Un with what is believed to be a child his daughter, Ju Ae, looking at what Experts say it is an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).

North Korea said the missile was fired Friday from Pyongyang International Airport was the Hwasong-17, a giant 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 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?

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his daughter walk away from an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in this undated photo released Nov. 19, 2022, by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency.

Leif-Eric Easley, associate professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, said the girl’s presence should be seen through a domestic lens.

“Outside of North Korea, it might seem crazy to sit in front of the cameras holding hands 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, the reportedly successful launch of the world’s largest 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 deficit in photos of Kim’s daughter.

“By showing quality time with his daughter, it looked like he (Kim) wanted to portray his family as good and stable and show himself as a leader for ordinary people,” Yang told Canadian broadcaster Global News.

The photos also showed the girl as a key member of the Kim bloodline, Yang said.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his daughter watch an ICBM launch in this undated photo released Nov. 19, 2022, by North Korean state media.

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 temporary change in North Korea’s leadership is highly unlikely.

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

“I’m really unsure of the implications of his daughter being introduced,” said Ankit Panda, a senior fellow in the nuclear policy program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“On the one hand, no North Korean leader can take lightly revealing (a) child, but she is a minor and her role in the test was not particularly played out by state media,” he said.

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

“The US has advanced 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 performance,” he said.

“In the past, experts have used videos to deduce the rocket’s acceleration during launch, which can help us identify its overall performance.”

North Korea's latest ICBM missile 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 used to be a lot more transparent before 2017, when their primary concern was 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 yet to demonstrate the ability to put a warhead on top of a long-range missile — missiles launched in space – it is able to survive the fiery re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere before plunging to its target.

But experts say that with repeated tests, the North Koreans are refining their processes. A missile believed to be a Hwasong-17 ICBM that was tested earlier this month malfunctioned in the early stages of flight.

“The fact that (Friday’s test) didn’t explode indicates that they were successful in fixing technical problems that characterized previous tests,” said Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Association of American Scientists.

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

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

“The possibility of North Korea’s seventh nuclear test in November seems a bit slim right now,” he said.

But another ICBM test could be Pyongyang’s response if the United States continues to strengthen its military presence in the region and increase exercises with South Korea and Japan, he said.

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