What Would Happen If Kim Jong Un Died?

This article appeared on The American Conservative on April 22, 2020.
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News reports supposedly based on U.S. intelligence information that North Korean leader Kim Jong‐​un was “gravely ill” following surgery briefly created a flurry of speculation on Tuesday. Kim’s absence from public events in recent weeks, including an anniversary celebration marking the funeral of his late grandfather, the founder of the North Korean state, fueled these rumors. The speculation was tamped down a bit when the South Korean government stated that it had no evidence to corroborate reports that the 36‐​year‐​old head of the Kim dynasty was indeed close to death.

When asked at his daily COVID-19 press conference Tuesday, President Trump said he “didn’t know” about Kim’s current state, but “I wish him well.” As of Wednesday morning, the North Korean state media has remained silent on his whereabouts.

Despite the unknowns, the incident should generate greater discussion about the North Korean regime and Washington’s policy toward the country. The Kim family’s domination of North Korea’s political affairs for more than seven decades has caused experts to view the governmental system as a communist absolute monarchy. And like all such monarchies, the issue of succession is exceptionally important. When Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il‐​sung, died, there was some doubt as to whether the system would survive, even though his son, Kim Jong‐​il, had been the elder Kim’s deputy and heir apparent for years. On that occasion, the succession proved to be orderly and uneventful.

When Kim Jong‐​il died, speculation in the West was much greater that Kim Jong‐​un was very unlikely to hang on to power. At age 28 when he became the country’s supreme leader, he clearly lacked the experience, gravitas, and the reputation of his father, much less his grandfather—a prominent hero of the armed resistance against the Japanese occupation in World War II. The conventional wisdom was that the powerful North Korean military would either oust Kim Jong‐​un outright or use him as a figurehead. That did not happen. The youngest Kim proved to be even more ruthless than his predecessors in consolidating power.

This time, though, there appears to be a major potential power vacuum if Kim dies. His younger sister, Kim Yo‐​jong, is likely to be his successor, and she has achieved an increasingly high profile as his chief adviser over the past several years. Although she seemed to fall out of favor temporarily following the fading of the once promising rapprochement with the United States (an indication that she was an advocate of that approach), she has recently returned to prominence in a top leadership position.

But the obstacles to Kim Yo-jong’s ability to retain power would be even greater than they were for her brother when he became the country’s supreme leader. Not only is she very young, at 31, but there is the gender issue in heavily patriarchal Korean culture. Although she might have the same surprisingly ruthless and effective survival skills as her sibling, it is equally possible that the Kim monarchy will finally come to an end.

There are several problems with Washington’s approach to relations with North Korea. Prior to the Trump administration, it would have been an overstatement to say the United States had a meaningful relationship of any sort with Pyongyang. U.S. policy consisted of trying to totally isolate the country diplomatically and economically, making demands that the government abandon its nuclear program, and hope that as extreme poverty persisted, the regime would ultimately collapse.

To his credit, Donald Trump at least opened a dialogue with Pyongyang. However, the new policy was extremely tenuous, since it was built on little more than a wary personal relationship between the president and Kim Jong‐​un. Worse, the United States still retained its utterly unrealistic demand that North Korea commit to complete denuclearization. For a variety of reasons, including the belief that a nuclear arsenal is the only reliable way to deter the United States from someday attempting to pursue a forcible regime‐​change strategy, as it did against Iraq, Libya, and other nonnuclear adversaries, Pyongyang is unlikely ever to capitulate to that demand. As a result, negotiations on the nuclear issue and other matters have gone nowhere for more than a year.

The United States should abandon its demand for denuclearization and work to normalize diplomatic and economic relations with North Korea. In exchange for a pullback of some North Korean forces from the Demilitarized Zone with South Korea, Washington should lift most sanctions and negotiate a treaty formally ending the Korean War. Equally important, the United States should recognize the North Korean government and establish formal diplomatic relations.

The latter step would be especially beneficial for long‐​term U.S. policy. Establishing an embassy in Pyongyang and consulates in other North Korean cities would be a bonanza for Washington’s intelligence capabilities. Currently, the United States is heavily dependent on South Korea for information about the North. Although that is not a terrible situation, it is not optimal either. No two countries, even close allies, have identical policy agendas and priorities. It would be beneficial for the United States to have its own robust intelligence on developments inside North Korea that could then be crosschecked with Seoul’s assessments.

No matter what truth there is to rumors about Kim Jong-un’s health, Washington should seek to expand its relationship with Pyongyang and put it on a less personal foundation. It’s nearly impossible to predict the future of the North Korean regime. Communist governments in North Korea and other countries have had a frustrating ability to retain power for a long time, despite their brutality and monumental economic incompetence. Indeed, U.S. experts during the 1990s and beyond confidently predicted the imminent collapse of the North Korean dictatorship. Clearly, those forecasts were erroneous.

However, as the demise of regimes in the Soviet bloc demonstrated, they also can unravel with shocking suddenness. Rather than pursuing a crystal ball approach to such matters, we should seek to be better informed and better prepared however the situation in Pyongyang evolves. That goal requires normalizing relations with North Korea.

Ted Galen Carpenter

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in security studies at the Cato Institute and a contributing editorat The American Conservative, is the author of 12 books and more than 850 articles on international affairs. He is the co‐​author of The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).