SEOUL, South Korea - North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his young daughter took center stage at a huge military parade, fueling speculation that she’s 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 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 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's 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.
North Korean photos released Thursday showed Kim, wearing a black coat and fedora, attending the parade with his wife and daughter. Kim smiled and raised his hand from a balcony as thousands of troops lined up in a brightly illuminated Kim Il Sung Square, which is named after his grandfather, the nation’s founder.
North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency said all of the soldiers and spectators at the square raised "stormy cheers of ‘hurrah!’" and chanted the name of their ruler, a "great brilliant commander" who is "beefing up the military muscle with his outstanding military strategic ideas."
The parade marked the 75th founding anniversary 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 the North’s status as a nuclear power.
State media photos showed transport and launcher trucks carrying about 10 of the country’s Hwasong-17 ICBMs, which demonstrated a range that would allow them to reach deep into the U.S. mainland during a flight test in November. Those missiles were followed by another large missile encased in a canister and transported on a 9-axle vehicle.
It wasn’t immediately clear whether the missile was a mockup or an actual rocket, but Kim Dong-yub, a professor at Seoul’s University of North Korean Studies, said the missile was likely a version of a solid-fuel ICBM the North has been trying to develop for years. He added that the unprecedented number of Hwasong-17s paraded in Wednesday’s event suggests progress in efforts to produce those weapons in larger numbers.
State media reports didn’t immediately mention whether Kim Jong Un delivered a speech during the event. 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 demonstrations in the face of deepening tensions with his neighbors and Washington.
"This time, Kim Jong Un let North Korea’s expanding tactical and long-range missile forces speak for themselves," said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.
"The message Pyongyang wants to send internationally, demonstrating its capabilities to deter and coerce, will likely come in the form of solid-fuel missile tests and detonation of a miniaturized nuclear device," he said, referring to U.S. and South Korean assessments that the North could be preparing to conduct its first nuclear test since September 2017.
The official Korean Central News Agency confirmed that 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" against its enemies.
Lee Sung-jun, spokesperson of South Korea’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during 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, and 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 testing activity was 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, Kim called for an "exponential increase" of the country’s nuclear warheads, mass production of battlefield tactical nukes targeting "enemy" South Korea and the development of more powerful ICBMs that could reach the mainland United States.
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.
All of the ICBMs the North has flight-tested since 2017 used liquid propellants. Solid fuel could allow shorter preparation time and more mobility on the ground.
Solid-fuel ICBMs highlighted 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 publicized events tied to his military is to send a statement to the world 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 in significant events and her prominent exposure in state media are also aimed at strengthening domestic 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."