Today we have gotten another round of reports that Kim Jong Un has died. This time they have emanated from a Japanese news magazine, which lends more credibility to the possibility that they are true. The North Korean leader hasn't been seen in weeks and supposedly had undergone surgery on his heart that may have gone awry. A top Chinese medical team was reported to have been dispatched from Beijing to help the ailing dictator. The reality is that all or none of it could be true. Kim has disappeared before amid reports of his death, just to reappear weeks later. Regardless, there is a lot of sentiment that seems to celebrate his demise. Be careful what you wish for in this regard, here's why.
Kim is a maniacal dictator who treats human life like trash. He oversees a military dictatorship that is the most repressive of any in the world. His regime is involved with a dizzying array of criminal activities focused on raising hard cash to support itself. His people starve while he builds empty resort towns and high-rise business districts. The state kidnaps people and it mass incarcerates entire family lines under the worst of gulag conditions. Kim is a brutal leader who has consolidated power via the business end of anti-aircraft cannons.
He also presides over a nuclear arsenal and a massive conventional military force that could lay waste to large portions of South Korea and bombard American interests and its allies in the region with ballistic missiles.
If Kim goes, it is far from clear what we will get in his place. Instability at the very highest levels via the death of a god-like ruling family dictator in a country that is already starving and experiencing a global pandemic with little resources to fight it wouldn't just be troubling, it could be terrifying.
Command and control over Kim's young nuclear arsenal is already murky. If he is incapacitated, the risk goes up substantially. If he is dead, the question over who controls North Korea's nuclear enterprise rises is a whole other level concern.
It's not just about who takes Kim's place if he goes. It's a question of factions within North Korea's ruling elite that may diverge in opinion as to who that successor is and what their true level of power and influence may be.
The old military guard that surrounds Kim has one business—perpetual conflict with the United States, South Korea, and their allies. It underpins the entire North Korean power structure. It's what defines it. Peace could be great for the North Korean people, but it would probably mean a power and control bankruptcy for those at the tip of the pyramid that benefit so heavily from an enduring adversary and scapegoat.
Kim got as far as he did with engaging with South Korea and the United States because he had proven himself to be a cunning geopolitical player and had consolidated power with ruthless abandon. Who knows just how far he could have taken it if he wished, although there was never any real indications he would give up anything substantial to achieve any sort of lasting peace.
Many of those that surround him and below likely opposed substantive detente with the United States and any meaningful reforms that would result from it. This is especially the case when it comes to turning over any of the nuclear weapons capabilities that elevated the country to a position of negotiation and into the international spotlight in the first place.
As such, we are likely to get someone far less predictable than Kim, at least initially, to take his place—one that will have to satisfy many competing interests to preserve their own foothold on power in order to survive—until they, like Kim, can consolidate additional power and prove themselves to be a capable manipulator of foreign interests.
That is if we even get a durable successor at all. It is very possible that nothing but a puppet of sorts is installed to continue with the Kim family myth. Even that could prove to be impossible, with factions within the top levels of power in Pyongyang and among the ruling military cadre digging in for a fight for control over North Korea's future. Yes, I am talking about the possibility of a series of successive coups or even outright civil war.
Any of this is highly troubling for a country that has dozens of nuclear weapons and that is in dire need of cash. Kim may never have had an interest in exporting a nuclear warhead or two because it would likely ensure his own demise, but in a power struggle, where lower-level actors with access to these weapons and the materials that make them up find themselves in a free-for-all, it is not outside the realm of possibility.
Not only would chaos in the Hermit Kingdom be highly troubling for the United States, South Korea, Japan, other regional players, as well as the free word overall, but it would be especially concerning for China, North Korea's closest ally and neighbor. The idea of massive numbers of starving North Koreans fleeing across the border into China during a period of chaos in their country is an all too real possibility for Beijing, one that the Communist Party there has no interest in entertaining.
That being said, an outright civil war in North Korea would be absolutely unconscionable embarrassment for China, especially when they are already under international fire over their handling of the COVID-19 outbreak in Wuhan. North Korea has long been their junkyard dog—a state that exists largely at the will of the Communist Party of China. Seeing it all fall apart and endanger the entire world in the process is hardly a look that an aspiring global superpower wants to wear.
Still, the reality is that China is the only real backstop in place from the worst of all possible fears coming to pass. The idea is that China would directly intervene to stabilize North Korea if the situation became dire. This could be done by politically and economically backing one faction if a fracture occurs, or supporting the initial successor so that those fractures don't happen in the first place. How this will be possible under the current international sanction regime in place on North Korea is unclear, but where there is a will there is a way and sanctions could even be relaxed so that a complete power vacuum doesn't come to pass.
Could China use its military might to occupy North Korea? That's very unlikely, but these are unprecedented times, so anything is possible. Doing so would only work if direct opposition to such a move wasn't widespread within the North Korean military machine and it would be a highly troubling trade-off between total instability and expanding China's direct territorial control to the demilitarized zone, something South Korea and the United States would have a very hard time coming to terms with.
So, with all this in mind, if Kim dies and a successor is named without a rash of instability and violence, the best we can likely hope for is a ruler that has to satisfy the hardline ruling elite and consolidate power by acting tough and dangerous, like their predecessors. Considering where North Korea is with its nuclear weapons and delivery systems programs, this would be quite troubling. On the other hand, we could enter into an unprecedented era of instability on the Korean Peninsula, where the nuclear weapons themselves could become trophies of sorts that signify who holds the real power—truly a terrifying situation to comprehend.
Such a situation would very well push the U.S. and its allies to act to destroy as much of that arsenal, its delivery systems, and the infrastructure that supports the entire North Korean nuclear enterprise as possible, which would open up a whole other pandora's box—open war on the Korean Peninsula.
So, with all this in mind, don't be too quick to cheer Kim Jong Un off to the gates of hell. What comes after his demise could be far worse than anything we have previously seen or even imagined.
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com