Over the past week, there have been multiple reports concerning the possible fate of the missing North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. Depending on which source you read, he is either dead, alive, or somewhere in between. Some reports have claimed the Chinese medical team, sent to save him, arrived too late. Others that the North Korean doctor had such shaky hands that he couldn’t perform the heart surgery.
The official line of the North Korean government is of course that he is alive and well but then again, they also claim to be leading a “democratic people’s republic”, so I think it’s fair to take their claims with a grain of salt. Since none of these contradicting claims have been confirmed, let’s just consider him the Schrödinger’s dictator for now.
What Happens to North Korea?
Whether he is alive or dead, an important question has to be raised. What would his death mean for North Korea? Well, apart from the nations obesity rate officially hitting 0%, there would have to be a new choice of leadership. Power transfer in dictatorships can be quite a violent affair. It can also have quite drastic geopolitical consequences when it comes to a country with nuclear capabilities and a history of less than friendly relations with its neighbours. When it comes to North Korea, nobody knows who would be in charge after the current leader’s death. Kim’s succession could be a very unpleasant affair.
The past leaders of the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea had a chance to groom their successors for years. However, Kim Jong Un is relatively young and his only known son is barely out of kindergarten. If Rocket Man happens to kick the bucket, the fate of the world’s favourite Marxist utopia could be at risk.
During his short reign, Kim has already managed to “un-alive” his half-brother and uncle. His older brother, the Fredo of the family, was deemed unworthy of ruling by his father years ago. There is also his other uncle, the diplomat Kim Pyong Il and his sister Kim Yo Jong. While she is deemed the most likely successor, it is questionable whether the paternalistic, Confucian, traditionalist elites would support a young woman as a supreme leader of the nation. In that case, one of the senior Politburo members would most likely secure the position.
There also always remains the unlikely scenario of a prolonged multi-way grapple for power, that could lead to a disastrous scenario for the people of Korea and the world. While this may not be highly probable, it is a highly consequential option that should not be overlooked. The recent months have already given us a stern lecture in ignoring Black Swan events.
Despite the fact that theorizing about the next episode of North Korean Game of Thrones is an interesting affair, it may not be as important as people think. Whoever secures the position of power in the end, the North Korean place in the world is likely to remain the same. North Korea with or without Kim has the same incentive to keep its nuclear armament as a powerful bargaining chip. The tight control over the media, economy, and people is necessary for the survival of the government elites and a wild policy turn is probably not in the cards. The communist economy can continue to stagnate for decades if needs be. As long as the government can keep people of Korea down. We should not forget that whatever happens, they are the ones who will suffer the most.
Igor Bubeník is an independent writer and commentator. His main expertise is in US politics and policy analysis. He is currently working on his masters degree at the University of Stirling.
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