A change of leadership in the ailing nuclear weapons state could change the security situation in Northeast Asia rapidly. What scenarios experts think are likely.
This time, the sparse information circulating about North Korea is a little different: Because in the past, the deaths of North Korean leaders and high-ranking politicians in the country have often been reported, often only speculated. But a short time later, most of those affected appeared in public again.
This time, 36-year-old dictator Kim Jong Un was hit. South Korean North Korea observers from NK Daily reported last week that Kim was seriously ill. There was even speculation about his death.
Experts caution these reports because they can hardly be substantiated. But meanwhile the American Korean expert Victor Cha from the US think tank CSIS says: “Unlike 24 hours ago, there is now more than one source about his incapacity to work,” Cha tweeted on Saturday.
Amid conflicting reports of the sole ruler’s health, Kim’s alleged private train was spotted by U.S. experts on the country’s east coast. The news site “38 North”, which specializes in North Korea, published satellite images on Saturday (local time), which are said to be from the previous week. But these recordings did not really provide any information.
There is also a second point: in North Korea it is not uncommon for a leader to dive down. It was unusual, however, that Kim did not attend the birthday celebrations for his grandfather and founder of the state, Kim Il Sung, on April 15.
Last week, the South Korean online site NK Daily reported that Kim had to undergo heart surgery on April 12 and was badly injured. The US news broadcaster CNN subsequently reported that the US intelligence agency was checking this information. Since then, media and experts have speculated outside North Korea about the health status of the overweight smoker.
US President Donald Trump last Friday presented these rumors as false. “I think the report was incorrect,” said Trump. South Korean government circles also denied. In addition, South Korean media quoted US intelligence officials that Kim was on foot in the port city of Wonsan between April 15 and 20.
But it didn’t help. Because Kim’s health problems are now considered secured.
Kim took hold of her heart and collapsed
A Chinese delegation, including some medical professionals, traveled from Beijing to North Korea on Thursday, the Reuters news agency reported on Saturday evening, citing Chinese sources. The team was led by a senior cadre from the Communist Party’s International Relations Department, which is responsible for China’s North Korea diplomacy.
Then a vice director of the TV station Hong Kong SatelliteTelevision told China’s Twitter-like service Weibo to her 15 million followers: She had learned from a safe source that Kim had died after a failed heart operation.
Kim also took a heart during a walk and collapsed, reports the Japanese weekly magazine “Shukan Gendai”, citing Chinese doctors. After a heart massage, Kim was taken to a hospital while Chinese help was requested. However, in their emergency, North Korean doctors had to deploy a stent to the Fiihrer. Only the surgeons’ hands trembled so much about the responsibility that the procedure failed and Kim fell into a coma.
The magazine is not the only source for this story: Jang Seong Min, the chairman of the Korean Peace Association for the World and Northeast Asia, also said that according to his Chinese sources, Kim was in a coma and, according to the doctors, could not regain consciousness. As usual, there are still no denials or confirmations of these rumors from North Korea.
A change of leadership or even chaos in a dilapidated nuclear weapons state like North Korea could change the security situation in Northeast Asia rapidly and unpredictably – especially at a time when the corona pandemic is crippling the global economy.
Even if there is no evidence of unrest in the country in the North Korean media, experts such as Bruce Klingner, North Korea expert at the American Heritage Foundation, are designing scenarios for the further development of the country.
Scenario 1: Kim Jong Un reappears
If Kim should appear again in the coming days, the media excitement should quickly subside. The country should then continue to work on improving its nuclear weapons and missile program. This year, the regime tested rockets at record pace despite UN sanctions.
However, it was a short-range missile. These violations of UN resolutions allowed President Trump to go through and instead invoked his good relationship with Kim. Negotiations on nuclear disarmament in North Korea have stalled since Trump canceled a summit with Kim in February 2019.
Scenario 2: Kim’s death leads to military conflicts
Kim’s death would be a severe blow to the regime, explains Bonji Ohara, senior researcher at the Japanese Sasakawa Peace Foundation. Domestic politics would be in ruins if no successor had been selected. “In today’s North Korea, the leader must be a member of the Kim family in order to have legitimacy in governance,” says Ohara.
In this scenario, the American Korean expert Klingner considers an “explosion” possible, that is, an attempt to legitimize a new leadership through an attack on South Korea and perhaps Japan. The result could be a war with many fatalities on both sides, possibly even a nuclear war.
Scenario 3: North Korea’s regime implodes
On the contrary, an implosion of the regime is a horror for security politicians. Because unlike the collapse of the GDR, many experts do not expect the regime to voluntarily surrender, but rather a kind of war between different factions. In that case, several dozen nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of one or more warlords.
The question in both cases would be whether North Korea’s protecting power was China and South Korea’s ally United States cooperate to secure nuclear weapons – or afford a race. The growing conflict between the two powers currently does not allow a clear answer, at best oppressive feelings.
Scenario 4: The inheritance dictatorship continues
The most likely result for Klingner is still a more or less regulated transfer of power to a family member. Experts see a woman in the best position, Kim’s sister Kim Yo Jong. Japanese Korean expert Hidetoshi Takesada, currently a visiting professor at Takushoku University Graduate School, says Kim has been trying to install his sister as his successor since last fall.
A female successor was long considered unlikely in a patriarchal country like North Korea. But the lack of suitable heirs could put all concerns aside, especially since the 31-year-old already has more political stature than her brother when he took office.
Already in the lifetime of her father Kim Jong Il she appeared in public for the first time in 2010. The world then became aware of her at the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea when, as Kim’s personal representative, she was on site with a North Korean delegation and negotiated with South Korea’s President Moon Jae In.
In addition, she has been the de facto leader of the Korean Labor Party’s propaganda department since 2015. She was also at the summit with Donald Trump. In 2019 she was also elected to the People’s Assembly.
With her experience, Kim Yo Jong would probably be the best guarantor for a continuation of the previous policy – if her brother really could no longer hold his office.