North Korea after Regime Change: Who Takes Over?
Seoul’s JoongAng Ilbo newspaper caused quite a stir on March 14 when it carried a report titled “SEAL team that took out Osama bin Laden joins drills in Korea.” Quoting sources in South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense, the paper reported that “SEAL Team 6, will arrive in South Korea soon for joint military drills and take part in an exercise simulating the removal of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.” The report led to an expeditious denial by “a senior defense official” to Fox News.
As tensions continue to build on the Korean peninsula, and as President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un go mano-a-mano in a verbal exchange, new solutions are being sought to address the conundrum. On March 8, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley declared that “all options” are on the table. On March 17, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson did the same, raising the prospect of preemptive action against North Korea.
The Trump administration’s policy review, “aimed at countering North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs,” was completed in early April, according to Reuters. Completion of the review was “accelerated to have it done before Trump’s summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping.” The review, led by National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster, proposes a multipronged approach aimed at tightening the screws on North Korea economically and militarily. Although preemptive military strikes against North Korea are not off the table, the review gives priority to less-risky steps and “de-emphasizes direct military action.”
Before his summit with Xi, President Trump had declared in an interview with the Financial Times that the United States is prepared to respond to North Korean nuclear threats on its own if China fails to pressure Pyongyang. The Washington Post, ran the front-page headline “South Koreans are dealing with a new wild card—in Washington.” The article noted increasing jitters in Seoul over the the U.S. president’s policies and that “Trump has proved himself quick to hit the send button on his early-morning tweets and willing, in Syria and Afghanistan, to order surprise airstrikes.”
Few can predict how President Trump would respond if the provocative Kim Jong-un were to conduct a sixth nuclear test or launch a long-range ballistic missile threatening the West Coast of the United States. In those risky scenarios, all bets are off. Continued inaction, however, along the lines of the “strategic patience” policy of the previous administration, would likely result in a North Korea that can directly threaten the United States with nuclear weapons before the completion of President Trump’s current term in office.
The removal of Kim Jong-un from power, in any case, would not be the end; it would only be the beginning. First, due to generations of mass brainwashing, the North Korean leader commands fanatical loyalty from the overwhelming majority of his populace, as demonstrated by the public adulation displayed during the recent military parade on the Day of the Sun anniversary of his grandfather’s birth. Second, as reported in the Daily Mail, Kim Jong-un unveiled his elite Special Forces unit during the parade. “The menacing and ‘highly trained’ troops yelled patriotic slogans as they carried rifles fitted with grenade launchers through the streets of the Pyongyang during a military parade on Saturday,” the article noted. “‘Once Supreme Commander Kim Jong-un issues an order they will charge with resolve to thrust a sword through the enemy’s heart like lightning over Mount Paektu [the country’s highest peak],’ a broadcaster announced on North Korean state TV.” They also constitute a special Praetorian Guard dedicated to protecting their leader from any attempted assassination.
Third, a sudden removal of Kim Jong-un from power could create a proliferation nightmare with rivals vying for power, each with their own stockpile of nuclear and chemical weapons. A sudden vacuum in Pyongyang would need to be filled very quickly to prevent a rapid descent into chaos, with rogue generals and a potential massive refugee movement. Chaos, the nightmare of every Chinese dynasty for the past two millennia, would likely manifest itself on the Middle Kingdom’s North Korean border.
A game plan, therefore, would be required for a post–Kim Jong-un North Korea. Such a delicate and risky political maneuver would require Beijing’s acquiescence, as President Trump has indicated. Meeting Beijing’s national-security priorities of maintaining, at least for a certain period of time, a buffer state on its northeast frontier and preventing a massive influx of refugees should be a key consideration.