North Korean leader brings daughter to soccer match

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un brought his young daughter to a soccer game celebrating the birthday of his late father, state media said Saturday, her latest in a series of public appearances that have triggered debate on whether she’s being prepped for a future leadership role.

The official Korean Central News Agency said the presence of Kim and his “beloved” daughter, known as Kim Ju Ae and believed to be around 10 years old, brought “joy and excitement” to Friday’s ceremonial game between staff members from the Cabinet and the Defense Ministry.

The Defense Ministry team won the match 3-1 and then beat the Cabinet staff again in a tug-of-war event, according to the report, which didn’t mention any comments made by Kim. The event was to celebrate the birthday of the late Kim Jong Il, the country’s previous leader and the father of the current ruler.

“The stadium was filled with joy and excitement of officials of the Cabinet and the Ministry of National Defense who had the great honor of holding significant sports and cultural events on the spring holiday of February in the presence of Kim Jong Un whom they wanted to see even in their dreams,” the KCNA report said. It said all participants at the event made a “firm pledge to serve the people with devotion with renewed courage and in high spirits.”

The event marked the sixth known public appearance of Kim Ju Ae, but the first that wasn’t overtly related to her father’s nuclear arms ambitions. She was first shown on state media in November when Kim Jong Un brought her to observe a flight test of an intercontinental ballistic missile.

She also appeared with her father in a huge military parade in the capital, Pyongyang, last week, when troops rolled out more than a dozen ICBMs, an unprecedented number that underscored how Kim continues to expand his military capabilities despite limited resources while diplomacy remains stalled.

Prior to the parade, Kim Ju Ae also joined her father in a visit to troops, where she sat in the seat of honor at a banquet while being flanked by her parents and generals. She also appears alongside her father in several new postal stamps released Friday to mark the November ICBM test, which the North has described as a success.

Analysts say Kim Ju Ae’s appearances at major events tied to the country's military is her father’s way of reminding the world he will never voluntarily surrender his nuclear weapons and missiles, which he clearly sees as the strongest guarantee of his survival and the extension of his family’s dynastic rule. Her prominent exposure in state media could also be aimed at strengthening domestic loyalty to the Kim family and preparing for a future heredity transfer of power.

While North Korean state media’s lofty descriptions of Kim Ju Ae, who has been called “beloved” and “respected,” have fueled speculation that she’s being primed as a future leader, South Korean Unification Minister Kwon Youngse downplayed that possibility during a parliamentary session on Wednesday.

Kwon, Seoul’s top point man on North Korea, said Kim Jong Un’s relatively young age — believed to be 39 — and North Korea’s male-dominated power hierarchy make it questionable whether Kim Ju Ae is being groomed as his successor.

Kim Tong-hyung, The Associated Press