SEOUL – North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his young daughter took center stage at a huge military parade, fueling speculation that she is being primed as a future leader of the isolated country as her father showed off his latest, largest nuclear missiles.
Wednesday night's parade in the capital, Pyongyang, featured the newest hardware in Kim’s growing nuclear arsenal, including what experts said was possibly a new solid-fuel intercontinental ballistic missile he could test in the coming months.
That missile was part of around a dozen ICBMs Kim’s troops rolled out at the event — an unprecedented number that underscored how he continues to expand his military capabilities despite limited resources in the face of deepening tensions with his neighbors and the United States.
The parade was the fifth known public appearance by Kim’s daughter, Kim Ju Ae, his second-born child who is believed to be around 10 years old. On Tuesday, Kim Jong Un brought his daughter to visit troops as he lauded the “irresistible might” of his nuclear-armed military.
State media have signaled a lofty role for Kim Ju Ae. She has been called “respected” and “beloved,” and a photo released Wednesday showed her sitting in the seat of honor at a banquet, flanked by generals and her parents.
The parade marked the 75th anniversary of the founding of North Korea’s army and came after weeks of preparations involving huge numbers of troops and civilians mobilized to glorify Kim’s rule and his relentless push to cement his country's status as a nuclear power.
North Korean state TV video released Thursday showed Kim, wearing a black coat and fedora, arriving at the parade with his wife and daughter in a limousine. They received thunderous cheers from thousands of troops and spectators packed in brightly illuminated Kim Il Sung Square, named after his grandfather, the nation’s founder.
After saluting his honor guards, Kim held hands with his daughter as they walked down a red carpet. The family entered a building where they sat on a leather couch, chatting and sharing snacks and drinks with top officials as they waited for the main march to start.
Troops and spectators roared again as Kim appeared from behind the building as the clock struck 9 p.m. He smiled and waved to the crowds below before taking his spot on a balcony, with his wife and daughter sitting behind him.
Thousands of goose-stepping soldiers marched through the square, chanting “Defend with your life, Paektu Bloodline," referring to the Kim family’s lineage named after a volcano that North Koreans consider sacred.
A ceremonial cavalry unit trotted through the square riding white horses, another symbol associated with the Kim family’s dynastic rule. The broadcast described one of the animals as “most beloved” by Kim's daughter.
Tanks and multiple rocket launchers were rolled out before the appearance of Kim’s nuclear missiles, which are typically saved for last.
Launcher trucks carried around 10 Hwasong-17 ICBMs, a system which demonstrated a potential to reach deep into the U.S. mainland during a flight test in November.
Those missiles were followed by what appeared to be another type of long-range missile encased in canisters and carried on nine-axle vehicles. It wasn’t immediately clear whether the missiles were actual rockets. But analysts say the use of canisters strongly implied a solid-fuel missile, most likely an ICBM which North Korea has been trying to develop for years.
North Korea’s existing ICBMs, including Hwasong-17s, use liquid propellants, which require pre-launch injections and cannot remain fueled for prolonged periods. A solid-fuel alternative would take less time to prepare, “providing less opportunity for an impending launch to be identified and countered,” said Joseph Dempsey, an analyst at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“Where North Korea is in terms of completing the actual missile and integrating it onto the launcher is unclear, but if North Korea is parading it, an attempted launch this year could well be on the cards,” he said.
The unprecedented number of Hwasong-17s in Wednesday’s event suggests progress in efforts to produce those weapons in larger numbers, said Kim Dong-yub, a professor at Seoul’s University of North Korean Studies.
The parade came after Kim met with his top military brass on Monday and ordered an expansion of combat exercises, as he continues to escalate an already provocative run in weapons tests in the face of deepening tensions with his neighbors and Washington.
The official Korean Central News Agency said the parade featured a variety of nuclear-capable weapons, including tactical nuclear weapons targeting South Korea. The agency described the ICBMs as crucial weapons supporting North Korea’s ongoing stance of “nuke for nuke and an all-out confrontation for an all-out confrontation” with its enemies.
Lee Sung-jun, spokesperson for South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a briefing that the South Korean and U.S. militaries were closely analyzing the North Korean photos and reports to evaluate the weaponry.
North Korea is coming off a record-breaking year in weapons testing. The dozens of missiles it fired in 2022 included potentially nuclear-capable systems designed to strike targets in South Korea and the U.S. mainland.
The intensified tests were punctuated by fiery statements and a new law threatening preemptive nuclear attacks against its neighbors and the United States in a broad range of scenarios.
Kim doubled down on his nuclear push entering 2023.
During a major political conference in December, he called for an “exponential increase” in the country’s nuclear warheads, mass production of battlefield tactical nuclear weapons targeting “enemy” South Korea and the development of more advanced ICBMs.
In December, Kim supervised a test of a “high-thrust solid-fuel motor” for a new strategic weapon he said would be developed in the “shortest span of time,” which experts said likely referred to a solid-fuel ICBM.
Solid-fuel ICBMs featured prominently in an extensive wish list Kim announced under a five-year arms development plan in 2021. It also included tactical nuclear weapons, hypersonic missiles, nuclear-powered submarines and spy satellites.
Analysts say Kim’s decision to bring his daughter to major public events involving his military sends a statement to the world that he has no intention to voluntarily surrender his nuclear weapons, which he apparently sees as the strongest guarantee of his survival and the extension of his family’s dynastic rule.
An official from South Korea’s Unification Ministry, who spoke on condition of anonymity according to department rules during a background briefing, said Kim Ju Ae’s repeated appearances at significant events and her prominent exposure in state media are also aimed at strengthening loyalty to the Kim family. The official said it’s too early to determine whether she is being primed as her father's successor but added that “all possibilities are open.”
“We can only speculate at this point,” said Duyeon Kim, a senior analyst at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C. “(Kim Jong Un is) obviously showing her off intentionally and, at a minimum, he seems to be trying to reiterate the importance, status, and legitimacy of a direct Kim bloodline offspring. It’s too soon to assume that she will be his heir because the son has always succeeded the throne in North Korea.”
South Korean media have speculated that Kim has three children — born in 2010, 2013 and 2017 — and that the first child is a son and the third is a daughter.