Who Is the Ruler After Kim Jong Un in North Korea?
I’ve had a very good relationship with him. I can only say this, I wish him well— Donald Trump
Rumours abound from the hermit kingdom North Korea indicating that its supreme leader, Kim Jong-un, may have suffered a serious health event. Some even claim that the Dear Leader is in fact dead, news that has sent the intelligence agencies of every western nation, as well as those of Japan and South Korea, in a mad scramble to discover the truth. As of this episode's writing, Japanese media outlets have reported that the North Korean leader is in a “vegetative state” though the rumors have yet to be substantiated. Careful observation of North Korean military forces and communication patterns seem to indicate that there is nothing out of the ordinary going on in the secret kingdom, but it’s impossible to say for certain yet what’s REALLY happening north of the demilitarized zone. But what if Kim Jong-un, Supreme Leader of North Korea, Chairman of the Workers' Party, and Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces really did die? What would that mean for North Korea, and what would it mean for the rest of the world?
Successor in Headlines
The question of North Korean succession has always been a tricky one.If the supreme leader died today, North Korea may look very different tomorrow. Kim Jong-un has no clear successor, and it's believed that in the case of his untimely death, it would be his sister, Kim Yo-jong, who would be granted power. This would be a dangerous proposition for the Kim dynasty though, since while Kim Yo-jong holds some position of political power in North Korea, the overwhelmingly patriarchal social structure of North Korea would likely see her regarded by many as an illegitimate ruler
Kim Yo-jong, would have to be twice as ruthless as her brother if she wanted to retain power, and yet in the end, she might not be able to fend off a coup from within. While a member of the Kim family and a direct descendant of the original supreme leader, to whom all Kim family members owe their legitimacy to, the fact that Kim Yo-jong is a woman would seriously weaken her claim to power. It's likely then that if Kim Yo-jong did retain leadership, she would serve as nothing more than a figurehead, exactly the fate that Kim Jong-un feared so much. However, she might very well be ousted completely, and there are two major threats to her power.
•Vice director of Hong Kong Satellite Television said a source told her Kim died
•Japanese media outlet claimed he was in 'vegetative state' after heart surgery
•If Kim Jong-un were to die suddenly, Beijing might well be as surprised and uncertain of the implications as any other capital-China
Threats to Kim-Yo-Jung's chair
The first comes from Choe Ryong-hae, who is currently the country's number two man. A ruthless political elite with decades of experience and a direct link to Kim Jong-il as his trusted confidant, not only does Choe Ryong-hae have a great deal of legitimacy as a political leader, his personal relationship with Kim Jong-il gives him some legitimacy with the Kim dynasty itself. As it's unlikely that the entire concept of a Kim dynasty would be trashed overnight, the hero-worship of Kim Il-sung is simply too deeply entrenched in North Korean culture for that, having Choe Ryong-hae step in as leader would likely be seen as acceptable to the North Korean people
The second threat to Kim Yo-jong’s throne would come from the military itself, the single most powerful apparatus within the nation. While Kim Jong-un's 'military first' policy was meant to earn him the loyalty of the military- and it did- it has also served to cement its power in North Korean politics, and no successor to the Kim dynasty could take the role of supreme leader without their support- whether an actual Kim family member or an outsider. The military could not only seize power in the event of Kim Jong-un's sudden death, it's very well positioned to do so. Not only is it the largest martial force in North Korea, its members also have deep ties to the national security agencies of the nation. No leader will take the North Korean throne without their approval. The most important thing though is if a successor comes from within the Kim family or not, as that will dictate how North Korea interacts with the world. While a Kim family member could over time change North Korea's relationship with the world, it would be an extremely slow and protracted process.
Currently, the nation is ostracized by the world and economically sanctioned over its nuclear program and small stockpile of nuclear weapons. The international block standing against North Korea is led by the United States, which has made it clear it will not entertain any negotiations that don't include nuclear disarmament.
This however is a problem for a Kim family member, as nuclear weapons are deeply tied to the legacy of the Kim dynasty. Kim Jong-un himself depended on the success of the nation's nuclear program, and had it failed to produce a working nuclear weapon it's widely believed he would have been forcibly removed from power. In many ways, his continued hold on power is still dependent on nuclear weapons, and any abandonment of the North's nuclear program would be seen as treason against both Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, as well as deeply anger the powerful military.
If a new Kim family member were to take power, abandonment of the nuclear program would be tantamount to suicide. In a sense, a new Kim ruler has their hands tied at the international negotiation table with regards to nuclear disarmament, and for now the issue of North Korean nuke development is a moot one- national policy will likely never change as long as a Kim rules.
However, an outsider such as Choe Ryong-hae could afford to institute major reforms if he wanted to. That is of course if he could find a way to keep the military from immediately removing him if he threatened to disarm their nuclear weapons.
© 2020 Naveen Sabbani