Nobody’s Expecting North Korea to Implode Without Kim Jong Un

(Bloomberg) -- Reports of a health scare for Kim Jong Un are prompting North Korea watchers to envision the country without him: And the general consensus is that not much may change in how the regime deals with the outside world.

While any sudden leadership change in a dictatorship as opaque as North Korea always has the potential for unintended consequences, the 36-year-old leader had consolidated power since taking over from his father in 2011. That has appeared to leave “no real advocates” for a Chinese-style opening of the North Korean economy or a change of approach with the U.S. on nuclear weapons, according to Robert Kelly, a professor at Pusan National University.

Nobody’s Expecting North Korea to Implode Without Kim Jong Un

“I would be surprised if you didn’t have another hardliner who more or less kept North Korea as it is, so I’m not sure that North Korea would suddenly implode,” said Kelly, who writes extensively about the country from South Korea. “We need to kind of accept that North Korea is reasonably stable and will be with us for awhile.”

As usual with North Korea, it was near impossible to tell what was happening on Tuesday. U.S. officials said Kim was in critical condition after undergoing cardiovascular surgery last week, while South Korea’s presidential office said that Kim was conducting “normal activities” in a rural part of the country and no unusual military movements were detected.

President Donald Trump said later the U.S. doesn’t know how Kim is doing.

“I wish him well, we’ve had a good relationship,” Trump said at a White House briefing.

If Kim were to be debilitated, the biggest immediate question mark surrounds succession. Given that North Korea has been ruled by one family since it was constituted after World War II, it’s nearly a given that the next leader would come from within the dynasty.

Kim has purged scores of senior officials since taking office, including his own uncle. In 2017, his half-brother Kim Jong Nam was killed with a chemical weapon at an airport in Malaysia, removing one of his last remaining rivals for power in the bloodline.

Nobody’s Expecting North Korea to Implode Without Kim Jong Un

While North Korea’s patriarchal leadership structure is dominated by males, the most prolific family member is his younger sister, Kim Yo Jong. She served as his envoy to the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, became the first member of the immediate ruling family to visit Seoul and was also by his side during Kim’s summits in Vietnam and Singapore with Trump, who has touted his friendship with the North Korean leader even while pushing him to give up his nuclear weapons for sanctions relief.

The two other prominent male members of the Kim family -- Kim Jong Chol, the current leader’s older brother; and Kim Han Sol, the son of the murdered half-brother -- lack strong political support within the ruling party. There’s also the possibility that Kim has a son through a previous relationship: South Korea’s DongA Ilbo newspaper reported in 2017, citing a parliamentary committee, that the country’s spy agency learned he had a son born in 2010.

“It is the outside world’s wishful thinking that North Korea’s ruling system will collapse if another Kim passes away,” said Cheong Seong-chang, director at the Sejong Institute’s Center for North Korean Studies. “With the broader leadership of the regime sharing the same interests with the Kim family, a prolonged leadership vacuum is highly unlikely.”

Survival has been a running theme in North Korea’s dealings with the U.S. over the years, with the regime citing the American-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as a reason it needed to acquire nuclear weapons. Kim has doubled down on that effort since taking office, testing an intercontinental ballistic missile for the first time in the face of threats from Trump to unleash “fire and fury” in addition to imposing stifling economic sanctions.

Trump Meetings

Nobody’s Expecting North Korea to Implode Without Kim Jong Un

The escalation from Kim won him a series of face-to-face meetings with Trump, a first for a North Korean leader. And while the sanctions remain in place, Kim has since continued to build up the country’s weapons as he pushes for North Korea to become accepted by the world as a nuclear-weapons state -- a stance that is unlikely to change if his sister or someone similar takes charge.

“There is little reason to expect change to North Korea’s nuclear posture if Kim Jong Un is incapacitated,” said Miha Hribernik, head of Asia risk analysis at consulting firm Verisk Maplecroft. “The country’s nuclear and ballistic missile arsenals are its only guarantee against foreign military intervention. Kim’s potential successor is unlikely to give up this trump card lightly.”

Trump, who is facing an election later this year, of late has shown little interest in stepping up pressure on North Korea. Last month, he wrote to Kim offering assistance to fight the virus, a letter that prompted a public response from his sister.

Resilient System

As a heavy smoker -- and with a pandemic ravaging the world -- it wouldn’t be particularly surprising to many analysts if something were to suddenly happen to Kim. But it’s also true that very few people know for sure about Kim’s health.

Nobody’s Expecting North Korea to Implode Without Kim Jong Un

When his grandfather Kim Il Sung died in 1994, the state kept his death a secret for almost two days to make arrangements for succession. Similarly in 2011, the death of his father Kim Jong Il was announced two days later unbeknown to the outside world, Thae Yong Ho, a former No. 2 at North Korea’s U.K. embassy who defected to South Korea in 2016, wrote in his book.

The succession process after the deaths of those two leaders show that a sudden demise for Kim was unlikely to change North Korea’s political system, according to Kwon Eun-min, a lawyer with Kim & Chang, one of South Korea’s most prominent law firms.

“Everyone worried that absence of the two leaders who had a strong grip on power to result in a rapid change of the power there,” said Kwon, who has led a study on unification and North Korean laws. “But North Korea’s capabilities of internal checks proved to be stronger than the outside world had imagined.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

BQ Install

Bloomberg Quint

Add BloombergQuint App to Home screen.