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Kim Jong Un made another rare public appearance alongside his daughter Kim Ju Ae


Kim Jong Un made another rare public appearance alongside his young daughter, Kim Ju Ae, this week in North Korea, this time at a lavish military banquet. It's unclear how many children the North Korean leader has. But after a few public appearances with his daughter, many believe Kim may be being groomed to become his eventual successor. Joining me now to talk about the Kim family is journalist Jean Lee. She reported from Pyongyang for many years for the Associated Press and is now a North Korea expert at the Wilson Center. Good morning, Jean.


FADEL: So let's talk about these pictures and this latest appearance. The Kim family has traditionally kept their family life quite private. What does it mean that he's bringing his daughter to public events now?

LEE: That's right. These images have caused quite a stir in the North Korea watchers community.

FADEL: Yeah.

LEE: I've just gone through not only those banquet photos but about 150 photos that were just published by North Korean state media from the parade that was held in Pyongyang yesterday. And absolutely, the ruling Kim family is notoriously secretive. They reveal very few details about the family members except in carefully scripted moments like this one. I mean, they really operate very much like a royal family. And I think the reason - you know, to us, it may not seem that unusual that Kim Jong Un has presented his daughter.

But I want to give you a little context, which is that his father, Kim Jong Il, who ruled for 17 years, kept his family, including his wives, his consorts and his children, very hidden. And so we didn't even see or hear about Kim Jong Un until he was well into his 20s and already tapped as the heir apparent. So this decision to make his daughter public and really include her in these very big events is something that we're sitting up and taking note of because it does raise those questions. Why is he introducing her now? Is this part of a succession plan?

FADEL: But she's very young. She's not in her 20s. I think she's estimated to be between 9 and 11. What do we know about her?

LEE: Yeah, we know very little. They do call her the beloved daughter. I have looked at the Korean language. And certainly, she's given the kinds of titles that we saw Kim Jong Un given very early on when he was first announced. And it's, by my estimation - and of course, I was on the ground when we were hearing rumors - and I should say, we as in me and others on the ground in North Korea. We were hearing rumors that the first lady of North Korea was pregnant. So this was in 2012. And so I would estimate that she's about 10 years old.

There was a lot of gossip. I did chat a lot with North Koreans about this prospect. And what was interesting is that I expected it to be a boy. I did believe that Kim Jong Un wanted a son in 2012. And that's because there's a whole Kim family history and continuity. His grandfather, the founder of North Korea, was born in 1912. But it was a girl. And so that was a big surprise and raised the question, could the next leader of North Korea be a girl?

FADEL: This is also - a lot of these photos are military-linked. There was the photo at an intercontinental ballistic missile launch. What does this say about the next generation in this weapons program?

LEE: Yeah. I've just gone through so many photos. And these types of big military parades are meant as a message to us in the outside world, also to the North Korean people, so clearly showing us and showing their people that they want to convey an image of strength. And they want to be associated with these missiles, massive missiles, and nuclear weapons. And that indicates their strength, the Kim family's strength in taking the country forward. But it does hint to us that it's going to be a rough ride in the year ahead.

FADEL: Thank you. Jean Lee is a North Korea expert at the Wilson Center. Thanks for your time.

LEE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.