On 15 April, the high-ranking members of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK) gathered at the Kumsusan Palace of the Sun to celebrate the birthday of the country’s first leader, Kim Il-Sung. The event marks the beginning of the new year in North Korea, and is traditionally the most important holiday on the country’s calendar. Odd, then, that the Supreme Leader of North Korea Kim Jong-Un was nowhere to be found.
A torrent of speculation followed. Daily NK, an outlet based in South Korea, published a story that the North Korean leader had underwent a cardiovascular procedure and was recovering at his villa in Mount Myohyang. Not so, said CNN – they quoted an unnamed Washington source saying that Kim was in “grave danger” following the surgery. A few days later, satellite images showed Kim’s private train at the seaside resort of Wonsan – perhaps the leader was merely taking a few days out of the city, or entering isolation to avoid catching the coronavirus?
Kim Jong-Un has become Schrödinger’s Dictator; he seems to be both alive and dead at the same time. Reports out of North Korea are notoriously unreliable. Media outlets in Japan and South Korea erroneously killed Kim’s father, Kim Jong-Il, and his grandfather, Kim Il-Sung, numerous times before their eventual demises. Kim Jong-Un himself had been declared deceased when he disappeared for six weeks in 2014, only to return from the dead grinning boastfully and walking with a cane after a surgery to remove a cyst on his ankle. Where some outlets have reported panic-buying in the capital of Pyongyang, other intelligence sources have found no evidence to suggest concern among the highest levels of government.
The only thing policymakers can do now is wait…and hope that Kim is alive. Reprehensible and deplorable as his regime is, a power struggle in a nascent nuclear state during a global pandemic would be worse than a continuation of the status quo.
The North Korean regime is already anomalous in its longevity. According to research conducted by Oriana Skylar Mastro, family dictatorships since World War II last an average of 32 years. The Kim regime in North Korea has been in place since the 1940s, and shows no signs of faltering so long as Kim Jong-Un remains healthy. “The very building blocks of opposition are lacking” in North Korea, as Daniel Byman and Jennifer Lind write for the Belfer Center. There is no independent middle class, no independent ownership of property, and—thanks to the strict regulation of information by government agencies and state media—seemingly no independent thought. Informants are ubiquitous, and state security agencies hold influence over all facets of North Korean life. Dissenters and subversives are brutally punished, sent either to “reeducation” camps or coldly executed. The stain of dissension lasts beyond their death; for serious crimes, the perpetrator’s children and grandchildren—including those yet to be born—will be born in prison camps.
The intense repression campaign is coupled with a robust propaganda machine which has built a cult of personality around the Kim family for generations. Kim Il-Sung is heralded as a national hero who led a guerrilla campaign against Japanese invaders around Mount Paektu—this despite the fact that Kim Il-Sung primarily fought in Manchuria, not North Korea, and he spent most of the war attached to the Soviet army rather than leading a band of North Korean guerrillas. The elder Kim’s son, Kim Jong-Il, was reportedly born on Mount Paektu—again, this claim is verifiable false. This past winter, Kim Jong-Un was photographed riding a noble white steed as he “recollected the bloody history of the guerrillas who recorded dignity on the first page of the history of the Korean Revolution,” according to North Korean state media. The connection with Mount Paektu is a crucial one; the imposing volcano has long been revered as the mythical birthplace of the Korean people. By connecting the Kim family to the sacred site, the regime draws an inseparable line between its brand of fervent nationalism and an unfaltering loyalty to the Kim regime. Love of one’s country become loves of one family: the Kims.
That cult of personality has eased the previous two changes of power in the regime, but at present provides more of a complication. Kim Jong-Un is believed to have a son—so great is the power of censorship in North Korea that we cannot know for sure—but he is believed to be far too young to seize power in the event of his father’s death. Kim Jong Il’s half-brother Kim Pyong-Il is still alive, but he has spent most of the past few decades in Europe and lacks the relationships with ranking political figures in North Korea to make a bid for power. In 2017, Kim Jong-Un had his half brother Kim Jong-Nam assassinated in the Kuala Lumpur airport, removing a potential challenger to his authority but also eliminating a potential successor. That leaves only one member of the Kim family who could reasonably take power: Kim Yo-Jong, Kim Jong-Un’s sister.
Kim Yo-Jong already has a public role in her brother’s administration. She runs the Propaganda and Agitation Department of the WPK and is also a member of the Politburo. Kim Yo-Jong has often been seen alongside her brother in public, leading to speculation that she is her brother’s closest confidante. She has the necessary ties to the Kim bloodline, and no small degree of political acumen. But there is one overriding problem: she’s a woman. North Korean society is overwhelming patriarchal and Confucian, placing immense value on age and gender. For all her skill, Kim Yo-Jong is still a young woman. It seems highly unlikely—though not impossible—that she could marshal enough support within the political and military circles of North Korean high command to rule as anything other than a figurehead. As Anna Fifield writes for the Washington Post, “I can’t see how Kim Yo-Jong could become the leader. But I also can’t see how she could not become the leader. There’s no one else.”
Given the intense policing of the North Korean people and the idolatry of the Kim family, a succession crisis seems to be the only occurrence that could bring down the Kim regime. In normal times, that could be a positive. The fall of the regime would no doubt bring about a certain degree of chaos and instability, but the continuation of that regime will prolong the intense suffering of the North Korean people. However, we are not living in normal times. If the Kim regime falls this year, it is far more likely to end in tragedy than salvation.
The current coronavirus pandemic is a black hole, engulfing all elements of policy, statecraft, and governance. Every world leader is looking to their own domestic situations, negotiating with public health experts and lower-level officials to organize an effective pandemic response strategy. The world economy has taken a nose-dive with businesses shuttered in an effort to prevent the spread of the virus. It is hard to imagine any public appetite for intervention in North Korea, even if the situation demands it. People would—rightly—demand that those efforts and funds be diverted to domestic COVID-19 relief instead of foreign excursions. Additionally, the challenge of operating a military campaign while maintaining six feet of social distance at all times is nothing less than farcical.
The coronavirus pandemic has also led to a downturn in US-China relations. President Donald Trump accuses the Chinese of covering up information related to the coronavirus (with some credibility) and has repeatedly suggested that the virus is a Chinese bioweapon deployed to harm his presidential campaign (with no credibility). Trump is seeking to demonize the Chinese and blame them for the coronavirus to deflect from his own administration’s poor response to the pandemic. While it may prove to be a successful strategy domestically, it complicates US interests abroad, particularly in the Pacific. Any change in North Korea—whether it be regime change or total collapse—will require close cooperation between the United States and China, not least to secure and inventory North Korea’s stockpile of nuclear weapons. China will not allow the United States and its allies a free hand to shape North Korea’s future after the fall of the Kim dictatorship; South Korea will not want to give China the chance to set up another puppet state right on its doorstep. Forging a new future for North Korea after the fall of the Kim regime would require careful diplomacy and tact, attributes that are sorely lacking in US-China relations at present.
Kim Jong-Un might be dead. He might be lying in bed, inept and inert. Or he might just be sunbathing on the beach in Wonsan, laughing at the Western media reports that killed him—again. As regrettable a stance as it is, we should all be hoping for the latter. With no clear successor in place, his death would almost certainly lead to a power struggle that threatens to engulf the entire regime, and perhaps the world’s two superpowers with it. The world can only handle so many crises at once.