April 21, 2020 | Insight

Kim Jong Un’s Health and What Comes Next

April 21, 2020 | Insight

Kim Jong Un’s Health and What Comes Next

Following a South Korean report that Kim Jong Un is suffering complications from a cardiovascular procedure, U.S. media reported that the North Korean leader may be in grave danger. If true, the Korean Peninsula may be on the brink of a radical transformation; at the same time, one should take such reports with a grain of salt, since they are often mistaken.

Even if the latest news turns out to be a false alarm, the Republic of Korea (ROK)-U.S. alliance ought to be better prepared for the possibility of a regime collapse in the North. Unless Kim has designated a successor and prepared the regime for a transition to new leadership, his death could result in chaos.

Still, the Kim regime is masterful at deception; it may have wanted to create uncertainty in Washington and Seoul. A spokesman for ROK President Moon Jae-in said, “We have nothing to confirm regarding recent media reports about the health problems of Chairman Kim Jong Un.” Likewise, Chinese officials downplayed the story.

But if Kim is dead, what comes next? His sister Kim Yo-jong is one potential successor. Her ascent would perpetuate the “Baektu bloodline,” a term for the hereditary rule of the Kim family. The selection of a close relative may be necessary to preserve the regime’s legitimacy among the elite and military leadership, although this is speculative.

The potential for instability stems in part from the absence of a succession mechanism within either the North Korean constitution or the Workers Party of Korea. Kim Il Sung, who founded the Pyongyang regime, designated his son Kim Jong Il as his successor in 1974; Kim Jong Il designated his son Kim Jong Un as successor in 2010. It is unknown whether Kim Jong Un has designated a successor. It is possible that he has chosen his sister, given her recent promotion to alternate Politburo member and the fact she began making official statements in her name in March. It is unknown whether a woman, even one belonging to the Baektu bloodline, would be allowed to lead the Kim family regime.

If Kim is dead, analysts should observe the actions of the Organization and Guidance Department (OGD), the most powerful agency in the regime. It controls all personnel affairs, promotions, and assignments for the North Korean military and ruling party; it also provides guidance on every aspect of regime policy, from military activities to propaganda. The OGD will likely recall the Workers Party leadership to Pyongyang and sequester it until it reaches a decision on the regime’s way ahead. The key indicator that a leadership meeting is taking place will be the movement of Politburo members to Pyongyng. This is how the process worked in the past, according to reports from defectors who were present at similar gatherings after the deaths of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il in 1994 and 2011, respectively. In both of those cases, however, the late ruler had already designated his heir. Without a designee, the meeting could be extremely long.

Even if a successor emerges from such a gathering, the possibility remains of a regime collapse, defined as the Kim family regime and Workers Party of Korea losing the ability to govern the entire North from Pyongyang, combined with a loss of coherency in the military and the withdrawal of military support for the regime. To understand the potential scenarios for collapse, Robert Collins’ Seven Stages of Regime Collapse is instructive. Its final three stages will likely play out if Kim is no longer in power: active resistance against the central government; the fracturing of the regime; and the formation of new national leadership.

In the event of a collapse in the coming months, the ROK-U.S. alliance must be prepared to address the humanitarian disaster that likely will unfold in North Korea, a challenge further complicated by the coronavirus. South Korea, China, and Japan (via boat) would have to deal with potential refugee flows on a very large scale when violence threatens the North Korean people. Units of the North Korean People’s Army would likely compete for resources and survival, a conflict that could escalate to widespread civil war.

Since North Korea is a “Guerrilla Dynasty” and “Gulag State” built on the myth of anti-Japanese partisan warfare, the ROK-U.S. alliance should expect a large portion of North Korea’s military (which consists of 1.2 million active duty troops and six million reserves) to resist any and all outside intervention, including from South Korea. Amid this insurgency, the ROK-U.S. alliance would have to secure and make safe North Korea’s entire weapons of mass destruction program: nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons plus stockpiles, manufacturing facilities, and human infrastructure (scientists and technicians). The alliance also must prepare for a worst-case scenario involving an attack on the South, which could result either from miscalculation or from a deliberate attack aimed at ensuring regime survival. This collection of contingencies could make the challenges faced by U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan and Iraq pale in comparison.

There are some measures that the ROK-U.S. alliance could take to preempt the scenarios above. Regrettably, it is too late to implement the information and influence campaign that should have begun 25 or more years ago to shape the North Korean environment for the current uncertainty. However, such a campaign is critical moving forward, and the alliance cannot begin one soon enough. The fundamental question now is, what South Korean and U.S. leaders will do if they learn Kim Jong Un is dead? Amid the uncertainty, complexity, and chaos of a disputed succession, the natural response is to wait and see how the situation develops. Yet that would be a strategic mistake that cedes the initiative to China and to internal actors in the North.

Rather, the alliance should quickly reach out to the new leader, whether Kim Yo Jong or another successor. No one can be sure how a successor will react, but if the alliance does not engage the new leader, there will be no chance to mitigate the effects of an unstable succession. South Korea and the United States together must make the first move to help shape the direction of North Korea and ensure it does not fall under the domination of China. Most importantly, the ROK-U.S. alliance must help the emerging North Korean leader to counter the hardline factions that will persist and challenge any cooperation with Washington and Seoul.

This does not mean Washington and Seoul should offer unilateral concessions. Rather, the alliance must communicate that the only way for the emerging leadership to survive is through denuclearization of the North and cooperation with the ROK and United States. The allies should convey that this is the only path that will lead to sanctions relief and the brighter future President Donald Trump offered. Until the new leadership agrees to cooperate, the current sanctions and pressure must remain in place.

Amid the complexity, uncertainty, and danger, there is an opportunity for bold action. The ROK and U.S. leadership must be ready to seize the day while taking all prudent steps to ensure the security of South Korea and preserve stability in Northeast Asia.

If the current situation is merely another false alarm or part of a denial-and-deception effort by the regime, this episode should serve as a wake-up call. The scramble in Washington and Seoul to deal with a potential succession clearly justifies more deliberate planning and preparation. As Dr. Kurt Campbell, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia and the Pacific, said in 1998, there are only two ways to prepare for instability and regime collapse in Pyongyang: “To be ill-prepared. Or to be really ill-prepared.” Washington and its South Korean ally can do better.

David Maxwell, a 30-year veteran of the U.S. Army and a retired Special Forces colonel, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he also contributes to FDD’s Center on Military and Political Power (CMPP). For more analysis from David and CMPP, please subscribe HERE. Follow David on Twitter @davidmaxwell161. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD and @FDD_CMPP. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


Military and Political Power North Korea U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy