The North Korean regime usually takes extreme efforts to prevent outsiders and even its own people from seeing instabilities in the North. But North Korean leader Kim Jong-un appears to be taking some risks trying to solidify his grip on the North in the wake of events undermining his control.
Nowhere is the potential for instability in North Korea greater than with regard to Kim’s health. On five occasions in 2020, Kim disappeared from public view for at least twenty days at a time, raising serious questions about his wellness. That pattern of protracted absence has now apparently been repeated twice this year, with Kim returning most recently appearing to have lost significant weight. The amount of weight loss is much greater than would be expected by a simple diet over that period, and in any case, Kim has never shown significant self-control relative to his weight gain. He has previously experienced other physical problems.
At least one observer, Andrei Lankov, believes that Kim’s health combined with new rules approved in January’s Eighth Party Congress suggest that “Kim Jong Un and his inner circle believe they are heading toward trouble.” Kim has historically resisted allowing anyone to become established as the number two leader of North Korea, purging after a short time those who have appeared to have gained that position. But the new rules create an official number two position in the North Korean government and a fallback committee of five who could also run the North Korean government. No one outside of North Korea knows why this change has been made, or even if someone has been appointed to the number two position. According to an essay Lankov penned for NK News, “All these moves have only one reasonable explanation: The top leadership of North Korea, for some reason, has begun to make preparations for the sudden death or, more likely, long-term incapacitation of North Korea’s current leader.” In short, the senior North Korean leaders appear to be attempting to manage a developing and potentially very unstable condition in the North.
It is useful to tie this development to other actions Kim has taken to enhance his control, and thereby identify instabilities he is trying to manage. One was the closing of the border with China, arguing that was needed to prevent the spread of Covid-19 into North Korea. The North lacks any significant health care system, and thus the spread of Covid-19 in the North could create major instabilities. Nevertheless, there is substantial evidence that Covid-19 has, in fact, spread, in North Korea, although the regime has denied any cases in an apparent effort to manage this instability.
By mid-2020 it is likely that that rate of Covid-19 infections in North Korea was equal to if not higher than in China, reducing the need to keep the border closed. With reports of extreme economic difficulty and starvation in North Korea due to the lack of goods especially from China, many have wondered why the North still keeps its border closed. There are two likely explanations associated with potential instabilities that Kim probably worries about. The first was that by providing and subsidizing food and other goods to North Korea, China had established a degree of influence over North Korea, something that Kim definitely does not want. In the Eighth Party Congress this year, Kim called for greater economic self-reliance in North Korea, which would counter Chinese influence at the risk of starvation and loss of consumer goods, creating alternative instabilities.
The second is that Kim knows that many of the North Korean elites and other entrepreneurs actually had become empowered with money, allowing them to bribe officials when they broke the North Korean rules—undermining Kim’s control. By keeping the border closed, Kim is bankrupting many of these individuals and businesses. There are now stories of North Korean elites and traders having to sell everything they have, including their homes, just to buy food.
There were even some reports of people starving to death, with Kim having declared a second “arduous march,” the term used in North Korea to describe the famine in the late-1990s. Then, as many as 3 million North Koreans starved to death out of its population of 20 million. Now even many of the residents of Pyongyang are not receiving food supplies from the public distribution system. Kim appears prepared to risk this instability in order to gain control of his economy, a major objective outlined at the Eighth Party Congress in January.
Also, earlier this year, North Korean officials tried to shut down the open-air markets in North Korea, perhaps as another approach to reestablishing Kim family control. The crackdown in the middle of an economic crisis apparently was met with such resistance that the repressive regime thought better of it, and allowed the markets to remain open. Resistance in North Korea? Another sign of instability.
And Kim has been concerned about outside influences. This month the New York Times reported that he called K-POP (a popular kind of music in the Republic of Korea, ROK) and related ROK culture a “…a ‘vicious cancer’ corrupting young North Koreans’ … ‘attire, hairstyles, speeches, behaviors.’ His state media has warned that if left unchecked, it would make North Korea ‘crumble like a damp wall.’” Concerned about the influences of outside culture seeping into North Korea, Kim hopes to control this instability. But how much pushback will he receive as he proceeds?
As always, North Korea is denying to the outside world much of the information that would be required to confirm the severity of any of these instabilities. Still, while it has been anticipated that a North Korean collapse could occur as the result of “sudden change,” it may be more of a “trickling change” in the coming months and years. And, of course, any trickle could at some point lead to a larger collapse.
Bruce W. Bennett is a senior international/defense researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.