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.
I have lived in Ohio for twenty years. Every year, I predict a Super Bowl victory for the Cleveland Browns. The Browns have rewarded me by compiling a record of approximately 3 wins and 47,917 losses, so I claim little faith in my powers of prognostication. And that inability is especially troubling when making predictions about a post Kim Jong-un era in North Korea, a country that ranks among the world’s most secretive. After all, it has had only two leadership transitions since its founding and has long defied conventional wisdom on many levels. So it is with great trepidation that I offer the following three thoughts:
First, I think it unlikely that Kim’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, would replace him. Although she has assumed a prominent role, she remains a young woman, and neither DPRK nor communist traditions suggest that a young woman is a likely successor. In fact, when Kim took power, he quickly purged his potential rivals, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake. One imagines, then, that if Kim is gone, the victor of the likely power struggle that follows will make sure that his sister soon rests next to him.
Second, this will not be an opportunity to improve U.S.-DPRK relations. In fact, as I recently wrote in this very forum, DPRK instability at the top usually creates increased provocations towards the United States, as a way for the leadership to rally the people and to justify failures. American officials should thus expect a period of increased belligerence throughout the transition, and prepare to react with prudence and restraint (likely a difficult task during an election year).
Finally, Kim Jong-un’s death would bring to the fore one of the critical failings of Trump’s personal approach to diplomacy. Trump’s reluctance to develop the larger structural connections that usually undergird successful diplomatic outreach means the framework will collapse with the loss of either leader. Any gains that might have come from the past few years (and I admit to being skeptical that any real gains were made) are going to dissipate quickly.
The most probable course is thus a nasty power struggle that leaves a military coalition, probably headed by Choe Ryong-hae, in charge, albeit under the guise of acting as regent for one of Kim’s young children. Meanwhile, U.S.-DPRK tensions will increase, North-South relations will decline, and the Browns will win the Super Bowl.
Mitchell Lerner is the Director of the Institute of Korean Studies at Ohio State University.