One of the most vexing questions for Northeast Asian strategists is whether adversaries are more dangerous when they are weak or when they’re strong.
Is North Korea a greater threat when its leadership is confident and ready to assert itself in the world, or when it is weak and instability could spill over its borders and overwhelm its neighbors? That question has assumed new immediacy amid reports that its supreme leader Kim Jong Un is ill or may have died.
North Korea tops the list of Japanese security concerns. The 2019 Defense White Paper calls it a “serious and imminent” threat. The chief fear is that North Korea considers a nuclear warhead on an intercontinental missile a blank check that allows it to threaten any government that fails to do its bidding. The danger is not that the combination actually scares governments, but that Pyongyang will think it does — a deadly miscalculation for all concerned.
Two weeks ago, North Korea was launching salvos of short-range missiles in what was perceived to be an attempt to remind the world that it remains a force to be reckoned with despite the COVID-19 outbreak that has seized the attention of those governments.
The mid-April tests were the fourth set this year, and they underline North Korea’s warning last year that the United States had to end its “hostile policy” by the end of 2019 or Kim would take his country on a “new path,” one that presumably ends the suspension of long-range missile and nuclear tests and shows Americans and their allies what a truly hostile policy looks like.
Concerns about North Korea strength are a relatively new phenomenon. Until a decade or so ago, the chief concern was North Korean vulnerabilities. Millions of people died of famine and starvation during the 1990s and security planners worried about collapse and the ensuing tumult and turmoil.
They anticipated elites fighting for power; waves of refugees, fleeing starvation and deprivation; containing and controlling the military’s considerable arsenal of weapons of mass destruction; or destructive spasms as a dying regime rolled the dice on a final desperate gamble to rally the country or to inflict suffering on others equivalent to the pains it was experiencing.
Last week’s report of Kim’s illness rekindled fears of weakness in the heart of the regime. It also underscored how opaque North Korea remains even though it has been in the headlines for over two and half decades. It is the “hardest intelligence collection target,” conceded Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, head of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, in 2018.
The world had no idea for 34 hours that Kim Il Sung, founder of the reclusive state, died in July 1994. When his son and successor, Kim Jong Il died in December 2011, only the official announcement two full days later informed the world. Leader summits and the extraordinary relationship between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump have not changed that.
In that vacuum, rumors abound, the more grisly and garish the better. For a while, it was believed that Kim’s uncle Jang Song Taek had been killed by a pack of dogs, a claim that was invented by a satiric Chinese social media network. Officials are frequently executed — according to intelligence reports — only to reappear later.
Skepticism then is the appropriate response to a report that Kim Jong Un was sick, and perhaps dead, after a medical event. The news originated in a single Korean-language news source, Daily NK, a Seoul-based website, which reported that Kim had heart surgery on April 12. Chinese sources subsequently confirmed that a Chinese medical team had been dispatched to the country to look after the leader and a Japanese tabloid reported Sunday that Kim was in a vegetative state.
Official Chinese, U.S. and South Korean sources denied the news. Even Trump dismissed the report as “incorrect.” Analysts note the absence of any unusual movements in the city that would indicate a problem in the leadership.
Still, analysts noted that Kim skipped the April 15 commemoration of his grandfather’s birthday, North Korea’s most important national holiday. Since taking office, every year he visited Kumsusan Palace of the Sun, where his father and grandfather lie in state, to mark the occasion.
Kim has vanished before. In 2014, he disappeared from public view for more than a month and was later shown walking with a limp; he reportedly had a cyst removed from his ankle. He is obese, a heavy drinker and a heavy smoker. His family has a history of diabetes and cardiovascular disease (which killed both his father and grandfather). It is reasonable to ask questions about his health.
But to ask questions about Kim’s health is to challenge the regime. North Korea is a dynasty and after three generations it isn’t clear who would succeed Kim if he passes from the scene. His children are too young. His brother was deemed unfit to govern by his father, and his half-brother Kim Jong Nam was assassinated at Kuala Lumpur airport in 2017, most likely on Kim’s orders.
Today, speculation focuses on his younger sister, Kim Yo Jong. An alternative member of the Politboro and a member of the Supreme People’s Assembly, she is often at her brother’s side, and has played an increasingly public role as well. She was the face of the North Korean delegation during the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics and hand delivered a letter from her brother to South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
Farfetched as the idea might be — experts note that North Korea is a male-dominated society — in conversation a few years ago with a North Korean official, he promised that a Kim would always lead the country, “no matter who he or she might be.”
Veteran Pyongyang watcher Bradley Martin is keeping an eye on Kim Pyong Il, the younger half-brother of Kim Jong Il, Kim Jong Un’s father. After being denied the top job, Kim Pyong Il was dispatched to Europe, where he quietly served as ambassador to a number of European countries for several decades. He turned 65 last year, retired and returned home last November.
Without an heir apparent, a health emergency would provoke a crisis as wannabes jostle for power and that rekindles the “weak North Korea” fears that used to alarm security planners. Dan Sneider, a lecturer in international policy at Stanford University, has explored the planning for such a contingency. The most important conclusion from his in-depth reporting is how uncertain the response would be.
While many in South Korea would delight in the collapse of the Pyongyang regime and try to seize the moment to reunify the peninsula, the current South Korean government is not among them. It isn’t clear how far it would go to stabilize and preserve the government in the North, and whether it would prevent others, including the United States, from acting.
Japan walks a fine line in this situation. It too would like to see the Pyongyang regime gone, although the most steel-eyed practitioners of realpolitik prefer a divided Korean Peninsula. (Their famous retort is, “We like Korea so much, we want two of them.”) Japan would be a bystander as events unfolded: In years of meetings at which U.S., Japanese and Korean participants discussed North Korean contingencies, the Koreans insisted that a Japanese military presence on the peninsula in such a situation would be intolerable.
If Seoul, Washington and Tokyo will wait to see how events played out, China will not hesitate. Beijing will move as quickly as possible to prop up (or create) a friendly government to preserve its partner, prevent a flood of refugees into northeast China, and maintain a buffer zone between the Chinese homeland and the democracy — and U.S. troops — in the South. When Kim Jong Il died — and a conservative was in office in Seoul — only China rushed to shore up the regime and called on other countries to endorse Kim Jong Un’s ascension to power.
One of the greatest dangers of instability in North Korea is a clash between the U.S. and China over the future of the northern half of the peninsula. China has been reluctant to talk to the U.S. about that subject for fear of alienating Pyongyang if word of those discussions got out.
The chief U.S. concern is securing North Korea’s nuclear weapons and components; that is assumed to be a key part of the contingency plan. But that could result in confrontations with Chinese forces dispatched to shore up a Pyongyang government.
That is a compelling reason for talks with China to come to some understanding of the reactions to and resulting risks of a North Korean crisis. It is a reminder of the danger of a weak North Korea and the need to take seriously even thinly sourced reports.
Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions.”