Editor's Note: This is part of a symposium asking what happens if Kim Jong-un died. To read the other parts of the series click here.
If Kim Jong-un (KJU) died suddenly, the most probable scenario might be the emergence of a collective leadership with KJU’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, as a symbolic figurehead supported by party elites like Choe Ryong-hae.
Kim Yo-jong is the closest to any level of ‘succession training’ at this moment and has been KJU’s nearest supporter in policymaking and diplomacy. In Confucian culture, the sister/brother relationship is one of complete trust without worry of competition. A similar special relationship existed between KJU’s father Kim Jong-il and his sister Kim Kyong-hui. Kim Jong-il had asked his sister (and her husband Jang Sung-taek) to be a sponsor for his young successor, KJU.
The Kim family cult and the Juche ideology are not just supported by immediate Kim family members but by the family members of Kim Il-sung’s comrades. Take for example: Choe Ryong-hae. A North Korean princeling from the second generation of former revolutionaries. His father, Choe Hyon, was a close comrade to Kim Il-sung and was known to play a crucial role in supporting Kim Jong-il to be chosen as successor. Such leaders share the same goal: To survive as a nation and to maintain North Korea’s sovereignty.
Other potential successors seem less likely. Kim Jong-il allegedly said KJU’s elder brother Kim Jong-chul was too 'feminine' in character to be his successor. Kim Pyong-il is the only surviving son of Kim Il-sung, but his domestic political base was wiped out when he was defeated by his half-brother Kim Jong-il in their competition to be a successor in the 1970s. Since then his life as a diplomat has left him nearly an ‘invisible man’, not even able to come back to the country between 1979 and 2019.
Potential successor scenarios aside, the reports of KJU’s health problems proved false with Pyongyang’s recently released footage of him attending a fertilizer plant opening ceremony. The international press’ particular interest in Kim’s potential health problems is understandable since Kim rules an extremely centralized regime and the Kim family cult is an important source of its domestic legitimacy. But it reveals the common misperception of Western observers once again that assumes an inherent instability whereby collapse of the regime could be easily triggered by some contingency like a leader’s health problem.
There is a long history of ‘collapsist claims’ regarding the North Korean regime. For example, Washington did not seriously utilize the 1991 opportunity to negotiate with Pyongyang, an opportunity that could have prevented the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula, because the hawks’ believed that the regime would soon collapse like many Eastern European countries. Claims of a coming North Korean collapse reached their peak as the country went through the famine and food shortages of 1990s. Some even argued that the regime would either surrender or easily implode with further U.S. isolation, additional economic sanctions and mass defection encouragement. The Neocons stated many times that North Korea was an evil that should be defeated or pushed to collapse by external pressure. Conservative South Korean presidents like Lee Myung-bak or Park Geun-hye also insinuated North Korea’s potential collapse a few times in their speeches. Why bother to negotiate with a country that could collapse? Yet, like the story of ‘the Boy who Cried Wolf’, these repeated claims never came true, and instead have obstructed and discouraged serious diplomacy with Pyongyang.
This does not mean that North Korea is rock-solid as a regime. It has both exceptional and common features of a national state. The force that unites the country together, regardless of an individual who occupies the position of KJU, is the desire for survival and national sovereignty, like most other countries in the world. As long as the Korean War remains officially unended with no peace treaty, and the confrontation via military tension and economic sanctions with the U.S. continues, the regime will be united without serious political changes. The irony of the North Korean situation is that the hawks in the U.S. and South Korea who hate the regime the most, provide the strongest domestic legitimacy for that regime by continuing confrontation and isolating the country into what might be called ‘hostile coexistence.’ If we want any positive changes in North Korea, by letting the country follow in the footsteps of China and Vietnam, the only solution is undertaking serious diplomacy that entails conditional, reciprocal, incremental denuclearization rather than so-called CVID or unconditional surrender. It should be simultaneous with a peace treaty that ends the decades-long Korean War and with U.S.-North Korea diplomatic normalization.
When there was no progress in U.S.-North Korea negotiations, Pyongyang tested and completed inter-continental missiles and nuclear weapons capabilities. Time is not on the side of Washington. Neglecting North Korea, waiting for the country to collapse, or wishing for KJU’s sudden death will not solve the problem.
Inyeop Lee is a Visiting Professor in Politics at Washington and Lee University and co-author of “Politics in North and South Korea (Routledge, 2018).”