The Situation So Far
What is going on with Kim Jong-Un? That’s the question on the mind of every world leader and political analyst across the globe. And it’s a good question to be asking. When the head of a rogue nuclear state goes missing, it should raise the alarm bells. But, the issue with the question is that there isn’t a clear-cut answer. Much of that uncertainty stems from the fact many experts consider North Korea to be a “black box.” Essentially, this means its closed-off nature makes getting accurate information from the inside near impossible. The fact that governments and media outlets cannot confirm most sources from within North Korea for their own safety compounds this problem.
So, why are leaders and analysts alike asking the aforementioned question? In short: Kim has been missing for twenty days as of May 1st, 2020. The public last saw Kim on April 11th, 2020 during a ruling party meeting. Since then, he has been completely unseen via satellite imagery, the public, or the media. Fears started to rise over Kim’s disappearance after he failed to attend a major holiday in North Korea. Kim has never missed the event, a celebration of his late grandfather and founder of North Korea Kim Il-Sung, before. The only words from Kim during this period came through North Korean state media in late April. The message thanked to workers in the North Korean peninsula Wonsan-Kalma. Questions were raised as to whether Kim actually authorized the statement, but no source has been able to confirm it one way or the other.
So, all of this leaves the resoundingly obvious question, where is Kim Jong-Un? The lack of accurate information regarding North Korea mentioned before magnifies the need for rigorous, detailed reporting on the question. There are a number of possibilities, many of which have grave consequences for international stability. Here, we’ll take a look at all the scenarios that could arise from Kim’s absence. The first and least severe scenario is that Kim is simply hiding.
Kim is Hiding
South Korean leaders espoused this theory after reportedly getting information on Kim’s whereabouts. South Korea’s minister for North Korean Affairs confirms that Kim is hiding in order to avoid the novel coronavirus. Some report that it’s because some of his inner-circle caught the virus. Others, like the Japanese newspaper The Sansei report that Kim fled Pyongyang because of a serious outbreak in the densely populated city. A number of factors contribute to this theory being the correct one. As Minister for Unification Kim Yeon-Chul stated, its not unusual for Kim to miss public events. Especially in such a turbulent time as this, when North Korea has officially cancelled a number of events due to coronavirus fears. The Minister even stated that since January of this year, Kim had been missing for around twenty days twice before this incident.
So, if Kim is in hiding, where? All existing evidence, which there is little of, points to an under-construction resort on the Wonsan-Kalma peninsula. Satellite imagery revealed that his personal train had stopped there for a number of days. If Kim is hiding, the long-term implications for domestic security in North Korea are small. There will be no power struggle, or civil conflict. The only realistic repercussion is some unsettling of public opinion because Kim fleeing the coronavirus would counter the public narrative North Korea has been spinning. According to official North Korean estimates, no one within the state has the novel coronavirus. That public discontent is unlikely to manifest itself into anything, as defectors have been reporting public dislike for the government ever since they were first able to escape. The next scenario, however, could be much more severe.
Kim is Sick
A second feasible scenario is that Kim is sick. Much like the first scenario outlined, Kim would still be hiding out on the Wonsan-Kalma peninsula, but for much different reasons. There are a number of theories that fall within this broad category. First is that Kim may himself have the coronavirus. Second is that Kim has been suffering from cardiovascular issues, and those issues may have manifested themselves in a stroke or heart attack that he had to recover from. The idea that Kim has been struggling with cardiovascular illness isn’t new, as experts say it’s very likely given his weight. In addition to experts, defectors from North Korea confirm this idea as well. If it is the case that Kim is suffering from something he can recover from within a few weeks, then the prospects that this scenario ends with similar results as the first are good.
But, Kim isn’t out of the woods yet. There’s a risk that he has a more health condition. Many report that he’s in “grave” condition. Some even go so far as to say he’s in a “vegetative state.” These kind of claims follow from a report that Kim recently underwent heart surgery, due to his cardiovascular problems, and the surgery failed. A botched surgery incapacitating Kim spells much more trouble than the earlier scenarios. If Kim continues to not be seen by the public due to his condition, instability could follow. The chain of command in North Korea could begin to question where their orders are coming from. More importantly, questions about whether Kim are fit to lead could start to rise. A single, big crack in the wall of Kim’s narrative regarding his own imperviousness could bring the whole thing down.
Kim is Dead
The final and most worrying possibility is that Kim is dead. There are two primary theories for how this could have happened. The first, much like other theories, follows from the idea that there was a failed surgery attempting to address his cardiovascular issues. Where this theory diverges from the others is that instead of putting Kim into a vegetative state, the surgery killed him. The second theory is that a failed missile test fatally wounded the North Korean leader. According to Gordon Chang, an Asia analyst, there is circumstantial evidence to support the theory. North Korea attempted to launch a volley of cruise missiles on April 14th, which Kim was on-site to witness. As the launch failed, shrapnel and debris were blown across the site, killing Kim. If either of these theories turn out to be true, it could spell the end of the DPRK.
Who Will Lead?
The central question that follows the revelation Kim is dead is who will lead? This question is much more complicated than it seems. That complexity is where the danger of this scenario comes from. Because North Korea has acted as a pseudo-monarchy since its inception, the position would stay within the family. Specifically, it would stay within the sacred Mount Paektu bloodline. The most obvious answer of who would take the mantle from Kim would be his children. While Kim is believed to have three children, all of them are too young to assume power. Another place that could be looked at for Kim’s replacement would be his nephews. There arises another problem. Kim had their father, his half-brother Kim Jong-Nam, killed in 2017. Since then, the nephews have been in hiding and have no political position or public status within North Korea.
The next logical option would be Kim’s older brother Kim Jong-Chul. The older Kim was passed over by their father, Kim Jong-Il, because he lacked the necessary strong will to lead. Since then, he hasn’t held an important political position or gained public support, making him another unlikely choice. The final choice, and the most likely of the unlikely options, would be Kim’s sister Kim Yo-jong. She holds the position of the First Deputy Director and de facto leader of the Propaganda and Agitation Department of the Workers’ Party of Korea. Given this, she has strong political standing within the party and North Korea. But, solid qualifications are insufficient to retain power within North Korea. The public, and officials, will likely reject her because North Korean society is deeply patriarchal and leadership has empirically been overwhelmingly male.
Assuming for a moment that Yo-jong is able to take and hold onto power, little will change within the country. Power will shift from one extremely anti-U.S. dictator to another. Given Yo-jong’s position as de facto leader of the Propaganda and Agitation Department, it seems safe to assume her political ideology is deeply in line with her families. But, more likely than not, Yo-jong will not be able to hold onto power. What happens then? As previously mentioned, no family member has a strong enough claim to power to take control successfully. Challenges from outside the family will face an uphill battle for a number of reasons.
First, once the door is open to leaders from outside the family, every official will begin vying for power. Second, there’s inherent resistance within the country towards anyone not from the sacred Mount Paektu bloodline. Third, Kim has been constantly replacing his highest-ranked officials in order to diminish their political standing, so no official is a clear choice above any other. Collective leadership will be impossible. North Korea’s long history of assassinating political opposition means paranoia runs deep amongst the country’s heads. Given all of this, it seems unlikely that any power transition will be quick and painless. So, what should the world start to prepare for?
The first danger arises from the “explosion” scenario. In this case, once the country has someone take power, they will launch an attack on a neighbor or enemy. They’ll do so in order to rally public support by both demonstrating strength, and diverting public attention towards an external enemy and away from domestic turmoil and political rivalries. The most likely targets for this lashing out are the United States and South Korea. Given both geography and relative military strength, South Korea is the more obvious choice. The central question in that scenario is whether the United States gets involved. Its unlikely that a calculated show of aggression will be so significant as to spark a protracted military conflict with the United States, but there’s always a risk of doing so when attacking one of their allies. The risk of miscalculation is especially high during power transitions.
If the United States gets involved, a subsequent and equally important question is whether China will become involved. China has an incentive to join if it thinks North Korea is at risk of collapse, or at risk of a U.S. support invasion. In both cases, China would lose an important buffer between itself and a close ally of the U.S. If China and the U.S. are involved in the conflict, the risk rises drastically. Fighting between three or four parties on the Korean peninsula could easily result in miscommunication or incidental escalation that results in a war between the U.S. and China. This must be avoided at all costs. A conflict between two nuclear armed superpowers in the middle of a rogue nuclear state spells disaster for the entire world.
Another likely, dangerous scenario comes from the possibility of an “implosion.” This manifests itself in a civil war or prolonged power struggle between competing political and military factions. The risk of an accidental nuclear launch rises drastically in this scenario. A rogue nuclear state is dangerous, but a fractured one is even more dangerous as competing factions fight over control of the country’s nuclear arsenal. In addition to the complication of nuclear weapons, there will be massive refugee flows. People dissatisfied with life in North Korea will see a domestic fight for power as the perfect opportunity to flee. Massive waves of refugees could be destabilizing to North Korea’s neighbors of China and South Korea.
Perhaps more importantly, the risk of a direct U.S.-China confrontation is highest during an implosion. There is an incentive for both countries to launch preemptive actions against North Korea. The U.S. will do it in fear of a rogue nuclear launch, and China will do so in order to prop up a new regime as a buffer state between themselves and South Korea. With both U.S. and Chinese troops on the peninsula in active combat, the risk of a misplaced shot spurring escalatory retaliation is high. This is the worst-case scenario, and must be averted.
What Should be Done?
The U.S. current “wait and see” approach will only work if Kim is just hiding or has a short-term illness. The U.S. needs to begin preparing for the worst. The most important thing that the U.S. can do in order to help prevent a war between themselves and China is communicate openly with the Chinese. Communication and collaboration on a joint plan to deal with the possibility of Kim’s death would alleviate concerns of a U.S.-China conflict, and produce a better plan leveraging both countries’ assets to deal with the issues of loose nukes and refugees. If the U.S. and China come together and work towards an agreeable solution that assumes the different possible variables, the world should be able to sleep much better at night.
While in the process of writing this, reports have surfaced from North Korean state media with pictures and videos of Kim. Reportedly, Kim attended and spoke at a may day event opening a fertilizer plant. No external news sources have been able to verify the reports, or the authenticity and date of the pictures or videos. While it is possible that Kim is back and healthy, that doesn’t obfuscate the need for cooperation between the U.S. and China over preparation for instability in North Korea. There’s still a risk of future incidents that will force the hand of either country.