Amid Rumors About Kim’s Health, What Would North Korea Look Like Without Him?

David Maxwell Comment:  “Some good analysis from Steve Metz.  I will offer this thought on China:
 
First there is no love between China and north Korea. While China wants to maintain the status quo and ensure there is no war or regime instability and collapse on the peninsula if they are unable to maintain the status quo they do not want to spend the money or have the huge problems they will have with absorbing North Korea.  What benefit would it bring to them?  The North Koreans will resist the Chinese as much if not more than the ROK and US.  There are two COAs for China.  First is to support a successor regime that would be favorable to China and enter its sphere of influence.  If that is not feasible then it will support Korean unification with the objective to get US forces off the peninsula and draw the ROK into the Chinese sphere of influence.

There is no benefit to absorbing north Korea.  But the long term objective is getting US forces off the peninsula.

 
So I also would push back on the conclusion and the future of the ROK/US.  I think it will depend on the security situation in the region and given China’s strategy I think the ROK will want to maintain a security relationship with the US.”

In the end, America’s role on the Korean Peninsula essentially depends on what South Korea wants. If a post-Kim North Korea became a Chinese protectorate focused more on economic development than military power and external intimidation, Seoul might see little need for a U.S. troop presence. The same would be true if Korea reunified. If Kim Jong Un leaves the scene without arranging for one of his children to become the fourth member of his family’s malignant dynasty, the long U.S. mission in Korea might, in fact, end on a successful note. And that would be a good thing both for the United States and for its Korean allies.

Amid Rumors About Kim’s Health, What Would North Korea Look Like Without Him?

 Friday, April 24, 2020
Editor’s Note: Guest columnist Steven Metz is filling in for Candace Rondeaux this week.

On April 15, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un failed to make his annual visit to Kumsusan Palace in Pyongyang to celebrate the birthday of his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, who is interred there. In North Korea’s dynastic cult of personality, it was a shocking break from tradition, and sparked reports that Kim had undergone major heart surgery and might even be near death.

The secretiveness of the North Korean regime always makes it difficult to know exactly what is going on inside the country or what Kim’s health condition really is. In this case, South Korea has stated that it has not identified any “unusual signs” regarding Kim’s health, and U.S. officials have indicated that they are monitoring the situation but have not reached any conclusion.

Even if this is a false alarm, Kim Jong Un is an obese, 36-year-old smoker with a family history of heart problems and strokes. It is impossible to predict exactly what would happen if Kim died. Given North Korea’s near total concentration of power in its paramount leader, his demise might lead to instability and other dangerous outcomes. But it might ultimately be beneficial for the United States.

Kim’s grandfather and father, Kim Jong Il, both had succession plans in place when they died, having groomed one of their sons to take over. Kim Jong Un’s children are young, so he has not been able to do that, which suggests three possible outcomes if he dies without a successor. Kim Yo Jong, Kim Jong Un’s younger sister who has played an increasingly high-profile role in the regime, might take control, continuing the dynastic bloodline. There are questions, though, as to whether a woman—even a Kim—could rule a deeply patriarchal society.

Alternatively, another male high in the regime but outside the immediate family might try to hold the existing system together. Yet it’s unclear whether a ruler not of the Kim family blood could do that.

Most dangerous of all, the entire system could collapse, with North Korea fracturing into a patchwork of ministates ruled by warlords. In this grim scenario, civil war and humanitarian disaster would be likely. Cash-strapped warlords might look to sell nuclear, biological or chemical weapons or technology, or use those deadly weapons against each other.

Hatred of the United States and its South Korean allies is the glue that holds the Kim regime together. With Kim Jong Un gone, that dangerous dynamic could change.

In any of these scenarios, China is likely to act quickly. The last thing Beijing wants is conflict on its border or chaos that might tempt the United States to intervene. If the existing regime survived, whether under Kim Yo Jong or another senior regime official, China would probably embrace and assist the new leader. But if North Korea collapsed into civil war, China might feel compelled to intervene directly.

At that point, China would have two options. It could simply transform North Korea into a protectorate, providing economic assistance along with Chinese advisers and peacekeeping troops. Whoever held power in North Korea would not like being a Chinese protectorate, but might consider it necessary to consolidate and sustain control in Pyongyang. Beijing’s other option would likely be shaped by the economic costs of its own recovery from the coronavirus pandemic. It could try to shift the costs of reconstructing and stabilizing North Korea to Seoul by agreeing to Korean reunification conditioned on the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the peninsula. That might or might not be acceptable to South Korea given the massive costs of reunification while it, too, is recovering from the coronavirus pandemic.

Either of these options, though, could benefit the United States. America first became involved in Korea in 1950 to prevent the communist regime in the North, backed by the Soviet Union and China, from conquering the South. But that hasn’t been a realistic possibility for some time as the South grew rich and strong and the North sunk into crushing poverty and lost its Soviet sponsor. In this century, the United States has remained committed to South Korea to prevent intimidation from the North that might have spiraled out of control and led to war. This was always possible since the three Kim dictators have relied on demonization of the South Korean government and the United States to justify massive military spending, internal repression and an iron grip on power. Hatred of the United States and its South Korean allies is the glue that holds the Kim regime together.

With Kim Jong Un gone, this dangerous dynamic could change. Whether North Korea was a Chinese protectorate or part of a unified Korea, sustaining the personal power of a Kim family dictator would no longer be its national priority. So external aggression and expansive militarization would no longer be necessary or desirable. Put differently, it was never North Korea as a nation that posed a threat to the United States, but the pathological system designed to keep a Kim family member in power. If the Kim dynasty ended, then, there would be no basis for hostility between North Korea and the United States.

In the end, America’s role on the Korean Peninsula essentially depends on what South Korea wants. If a post-Kim North Korea became a Chinese protectorate focused more on economic development than military power and external intimidation, Seoul might see little need for a U.S. troop presence. The same would be true if Korea reunified. If Kim Jong Un leaves the scene without arranging for one of his children to become the fourth member of his family’s malignant dynasty, the long U.S. mission in Korea might, in fact, end on a successful note. And that would be a good thing both for the United States and for its Korean allies.

Steven Metz is a nonresident fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He was a weekly columnist for World Politics Review from 2012 until 2019. He writes widely on defense and military issues, and is currently working on a book about the future of insurgency.

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