Washington – Despite its pertinence to his own situation, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may be unfamiliar with the famous quote "Reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated,” once attributed to the American humorist Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain.
When Kim unexpectedly went incommunicado for several weeks, punctuated by his missing the celebrations for one of North Korea’s most important holidays — the April 15 birthday of his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, the founder of the North Korean regime — speculation was rife among the media and pundits that Kim was dead, a vegetable or worse.
The furor was apparently kicked off by the South Korean online newspaper Daily NK, which rightly prides itself on having a “wide range of sources inside North Korea.” North Korea watchers of all stripes joined the fervent speculation, noting that Kim had never before missed these celebrations, and that Pyongyang usually responds promptly to such health rumors by issuing a statement or simply displaying the leader in good sorts.
Reading the tea leaves, commentators noted clear indications that Kim underwent a sudden medical episode; for example, upon his resurfacing, Kim had a mark on his right wrist of the sort that suggested he had undergone a cardiovascular procedure. The timing of his absence suggested that such a procedure would have been urgent and not long-scheduled, since Kim presumably would have preferred not to have been out of commission on April 15.
Further fueling speculation, China reportedly sent a team of officials, including medical experts, to North Korea during Kim’s absence from public view — led by a senior member of the Chinese Communist Party’s International Liaison Department.
However, South Korean officials have been publicly downplaying the medical scenario, perhaps in an effort to tamp down speculation and avoid antagonizing Pyongyang. Suh Hoon, the director of South Korea’s National Intelligence Service, reportedly told Korean legislators that Kim’s absences may have been more related to concerns over COVID-19. Indeed, stories surfaced in the media that Kim was seen by surveillance to be walking without assistance at his Wonsan compound between April 15 and 20. Of course, none of this precludes the possibility that Kim underwent a serious medical procedure.
Now that it is evident that Kim is at least well enough to be mobile, it is worth examining why his putative health issues have attracted such a furor of commentary, and to draw lessons accordingly. International consternation at the possibility of Kim’s death or incapacitation clearly reflects concerns about the prospects for resultant instability on the Korean Peninsula, one of the world’s most notorious flashpoints. It also underscores the lack of coordinated international preparedness for such a scenario.
Previous successions in North Korea have been relatively well-regulated, dominated as they have been by the primogeniture system of the de facto Kim dynasty. The transition from Kim Il Sung to Kim Jong Il in 1994 and the transition from Kim Jong Il to Kim Jong Un in 2011 appeared to have gone relatively smoothly. We may attribute this to the fact that, in both cases, there were designated heirs who had undergone some grooming, and there was a fairly predictable succession process in place. But can we assume that is the case today?
Given the opacity of the North Korean political system, it is difficult to ascertain whether Kim’s sister Kim Yo Jong, his long-absent uncle Kim Pyong Il or yet another member of the North Korean royal family might be in line to succeed to Kim’s throne.
Kim Jong Un is still a young man, and he may well find it to his advantage to keep everyone guessing at this point, as this may allow him to play one faction off against another. This might also allow him to avoid having too obvious a successor who might try to speed up the succession process, prematurely from Kim’s perspective. It should be recalled that Kim has already had his relatives killed for less.
In a Stalinist state, leaders frequently blur succession lines or name unprepossessing successors presumptive for just that reason. It is worth recalling that Soviet leader Josef Stalin formally anointed Georgi Malenkov, a political weakling, as his nominal successor to forestall the possibility of a coup. Of course, following Stalin’s demise, Malenkov was rapidly shoved aside by the major players in the ensuing power struggle.
In the North Korean case, absent a clear succession mechanism, some commentators speculate that Choe Ryong Hae — reputedly the second senior-most North Korean official, and the father-in-law of Kim’s younger sister — would referee the selection of an heir, but there is no precedent upon which we can faithfully rely.
One thing is certain: the erroneous reports of Kim’s death highlight the fault lines and fallacies in the international community’s preparations for such a contingency. The possibility of tumult in North Korea has obvious implications for stability on the Korean Peninsula, with the very real possibility that an international crisis could ensue.
Even if and when Kim has a clearly designated and widely accepted heir apparent, the international community needs to be better prepared. Ideally, this would involve a strong degree of advance coordination among key international stakeholders.
In this context, the importance of China’s role in any post-Kim scenario cannot be exaggerated. Since Mao Zedong, the Chinese have referred to their relationship with North Korea as being as close as “lips and teeth.” Indeed, North Korea’s economy is intertwined with China’s and heavily dependent upon it, and they share a lengthy and porous border.
There are, however, visible frictions in that relationship, and North Korea clearly attempts to maximize its freedom of maneuver vis-a-vis Beijing, to the occasional exasperation of Chinese officials. That said, the Chinese will have a clearer window than most into any North Korean succession process. This may present them with opportunities to influence it, and in any event, to react to it more nimbly and with more alacrity than the United States and its allies, Japan and South Korea.
Here we must recall that China’s interests in North Korea diverge substantially from those of the U.S. The Chinese place top priority on stability and preservation of North Korea as a separate entity, not on denuclearization. Nor is Beijing supportive of reunification — particularly from the South — which could mean U.S. forces on the Yalu River or a revanchist Korea agitating among the millions of ethnic Koreans on the Chinese side of the border.
More broadly, China also frequently acts to check U.S. global ambitions and seeks to diminish U.S. influence. To cite a parallel example, even though the interests of China often diverge from those of Russia in the Middle East — where China generally prefers to keep things calm and to maintain lower oil prices — China has been voting with Russia, and against the U.S., in the United Nations Security Council on Syria. We cannot simply assume that China will align with the U.S. in any post-Kim scenario because we imagine it to be in China’s immediate interests in the region.
That said, it is important that the U.S. and its allies attempt to coordinate to the extent possible with China on post-Kim scenarios to avoid misunderstandings or miscalculations. There have reportedly been some discussions along these lines in official channels in the past, but the Chinese have been notoriously reluctant to get drawn into close coordination that might suggest their lack of confidence in the North Korean leadership’s staying power, or China’s willingness to go behind Pyongyang’s back to negotiate the future of North Korea.
Major international players have developed detailed national plans for grappling with various Korean Peninsula scenarios, including but not limited to regime collapse, fractionation leading to separate de facto fiefdoms, loose nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction, mass outpouring of refugees across the Chinese border, precipitous launches of cyber or kinetic attacks, or even all-out war by a paranoid successor regime. But absent cohesive international coordination, the chance for misunderstanding or miscalculation increases.
In the event of regime collapse, China, the U.S. and South Korea might not have the luxury of mustering international consensus and a formal North Korean invitation to intervene before circumstances compel them to scramble to have their military forces seize North Korean nuclear facilities.
This could be extremely complicated, given that North Korea has over a million men under arms and is steeped in a guerrilla warfare tradition. A coordinated approach would be critical to avoid missteps, especially since Chinese forces are closer and might be expected to get there first.
Similarly, efforts to prevent sale and export of loose North Korean weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery by various North Korean bad actors would require close coordination with China, and its cooperation along the long and porous border it shares with North Korea. Of course, provision of humanitarian assistance would also be facilitated by strong communication among international stakeholders
Japan would play an important role in any post-Kim scenario. We should recall that Japan provided crucial logistic support during the Korean War, and that the South Korean army was largely rebuilt thanks to training in Japan. Even now, the seven U.N.-designated bases in Japan are critical for stability on the Korean Peninsula.
In the event of a North Korean collapse, Japan will face missile threats, possibly including from rogue North Korean military elements, and will of necessity be involved in international cooperation to secure both naval routes and North Korean refugees at sea, inter alia. Needless to say, Japan will also be called on to provide massive humanitarian assistance.
Therefore, the U.S., Japan and South Korea should consider establishing a joint center to coordinate their response to a post-Kim scenario — including scenarios dealing with loose nuclear weapons, sealing off North Korea to prevent proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery, assisting refugees, providing humanitarian assistance, and coordinating communication to North Korean elites that may limit the chance for armed conflict.
They should engage with China on its possible participation in such a center, or at least regularized communication and coordination with it. The more we can regularize coordination on a North Korean succession among the major international stakeholders, the less concerned the international community will need to be when Kim misses another birthday party.
Thomas Cynkin is a former U.S. charge d’affaires to the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva. He is vice president of the Daniel Morgan Graduate School of National Security.