North Korea after Regime Change: Who Takes Over?

Kim Han-sol may prove to be the best hope for avoiding chaos, including a potential nuclear conflagration.

The leadership in Beijing, including Xi Jinping, the most formidable Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping, has little affection for its petulant and disrespectful North Korean ally. The fact that Pyongyang’s “bad boy” has yet to receive an invitation to Beijing after over five years in power, unlike both his father and grandfather, is a telling signal from the protocol-conscious Chinese. In addition, by killing his relatives with close ties to China, including his uncle Jang Song-thaek and his half-brother Kim Jong-nam, Kim Jong-un has signaled his total disdain for Beijing.

How does one solve a problem of such magnitude? And where is there common ground? One possibility may lie with the son of the murdered pro-Chinese Kim Jong-nam. Kim Han-sol, his twenty-one-year-old son, is very young for accepting a leadership role. But Kim Jong-un himself was only twenty-seven when he was suddenly thrust into power upon the death of his father in 2011. The key to North Korean acceptance of such a neophyte as supreme ruler of the country seemed to be his biological link to the “sacred” Baekdu bloodline.

If Kim Jong-un is the chief male descendant of the third generation of that bloodline, Kim Han-sol is the chief fourth generation direct descendant—and this may make him a palatable alternative for some in Pyongyang. Further, Kim Han-sol is a descendant of a branch of the Kim family, which, in direct contrast to Kim Jong-un, has consistently maintained cordial relations with North Korea’s Chinese benefactors. And he could even possibly put forward a proposed idea for a confederation with South Korea as a stepping stone to eventual reunification, if he gained ascendancy in Pyongyang.

And Kim Han-sol stands in stark contrast to his uncle. Kim Jong-un demonstrated no enlightened tendencies upon his assumption of power, even though his Swiss education led to misplaced expectations in certain quarters. If anything, he has been even more ruthless than his father and grandfather, who drew the line at killing fellow family members.

Kim Han-sol was educated in Paris. He recently surrendered a coveted opportunity to study at Oxford out of fear for his life, even before his father’s death. The Daily Mail reported that there had been “warnings from Chinese security officials that the North Korean leader was plotting to kill both the 21-year-old and his father.”

The BBC referred to Kim Han-sol as “the open-minded son of Kim Jong-nam.” It then quoted from a 2012 interview with Finnish television where he said, “I’ve always dreamed that one day I would go back and make things better, and make things easier for the people back there. I also dream of unification.”

The same report noted that although his immediate family was reportedly living in exile, Kim Han-sol, who was then seventeen-years-old, said that he visited North Korea every summer to “meet with my relatives and keep in touch with my family.” When asked about his uncle, he said, “I don't really know how he became a dictator because first of all it was between him and my grandfather.”

But where is this young descendant of the Baekdu bloodline now? Kim Han-sol immediately went into hiding after his father was murdered with an internationally-banned chemical agent. A video surfaced on March in which a person claiming to be Kim Han-sol thanked “the governments of The Netherlands, China, the United States and a fourth unnamed country” for providing emergency humanitarian assistance to protect him and his family. An official in South Korea’s National Intelligence Service said that the man in the video is Kim Han-sol.

Since then, Kim Han-sol, his mother and his sister have vanished without a trace. Hopefully he is in Chinese protective custody. And, if so, the United States may wish to discreetly discuss with Beijing contingency plans for placing this Manchurian candidate as a stand-in leader if regime collapse comes to Pyongyang. This young man may prove to be the best hope for avoiding chaos, including a potential nuclear conflagration, on the Korean peninsula.

Dennis Halpin, a former adviser on Asian issues to the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is currently a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS (Johns Hopkins) and a consultant at the Poblete Analysis Group.

Image: Monument at Pyongyang Film Studios. Flickr/Creative Commons/Roman Harak