Last year, the world did not see enough North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un. He disappeared from public view and almost immediately stories arose speculating that he was sick or dead. Of course, he eventually reappeared, embarrassing those who participated in a Global Death Watch.
Now the conversation has resumed, but this time because he has remained in public view. First, he clearly lost weight, up to 44 pounds according to South Korean analysts’ estimate. If that’s expected, that’s good news for him. He was estimated to weigh up to 308 pounds, which, considering his relatively small size, made him morbidly obese. (He also drinks and smokes, two other risk factors.) He is vulnerable to heart disease, diabetes and several other illnesses. Losing a few pounds would improve its longevity.
However, substantial weight loss is not always expected. Otherwise, it can be a sign of a serious illness, such as cancer. If there were no other indications of infirmity, the weight loss would more likely be attributed to a diet fit for a king, or at least some other type of hereditary chef like him. But he also recently sported a branding and later a bandage on his head.
Of these, nothing has been said publicly, of course, and they could reflect minor issues. Seven years ago, he disappeared after having a limp and came back to watch the march with a cane. He is said to have undergone ankle surgery, from which he apparently recovered completely and without difficulty. (In 2008, her father was missing for much longer following a stroke, and nothing was said to the public at the time, although after Kim Pere reappeared, his debilitated state could not be hidden from viewers.) The latest incident could also be unimportant.
Still, there are indications that Kim Jong-un or his colleagues may be preparing for a succession. Earlier this year, the Supreme Leader was promoted to general secretary of the Workers’ Party of Korea. This post is no longer reserved for his father, who died almost ten years ago. Kim son has left the post of first secretary, who could become second in command. This decision might be unimportant, but venerable North Korea observer Andrei Lankov suggested it was linked to a possible succession: “No other ruling Communist party has had a formally defined position of commander in second – a pending ruler. “
In fact, the Kim’s have sometimes shared power informally. Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, acted as quasi-prime minister, directing domestic politics during the last years of DPRK founder Kim Il-sung. As Kim Jong-il recovered from a stroke in August 2008, his brother-in-law, Jang Song-thaek, acted in the place of the former. (After Kim Jong-il’s death, Jang was tasked with helping mentor Kim Jong-un, only to be executed by his student, possibly for trying to take over.)
All we know about Kim Jong-un’s current state of health are clues, rumors, and other information gathered from peering darkly through the window into the DPRK. The fixation on Kim’s health seems scary. However, in a diet largely (but not universally) meant to reflect one man rule, what happens when that person crosses the Styx is extremely important. The deaths of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong all sparked long and substantial power struggles.
In contrast, Kim Il-sung spent a few decades planning the transition, eliminating his rivals, promoting Kim Jong-il and handing over the day-to-day management to the latter. Young Kim spent less time with his son, as the process only started when Kim Jong-il recovered from his stroke. That left less than three years. While the succession seemed to go smoothly, it’s unclear how much authority Kim Jong-un immediately inherited and how much was added as he overcame the challenges that came with it.
In any case, today’s Supreme Leader has no obvious heir. Her children are too young. His wife has no political role. Her older brother was deemed missing by their father and is a political non-entity. His half-uncle was exiled as ambassador to several European countries by Kim Jong-il. The only plausible candidate would be his sister, Kim Yo-jong. Although she plays an important role, her power seems to be almost entirely derived, depending on her brother. Indeed, she appears to have been promoted and demoted, presumably by him, with some regularity, suggesting the absence of an independent power base.
She has royal blood, but that means little if her status has not been presented to the public. It’s also not clear that Kim’s pedigree matters much these days: given the flood of information from South Korea that angered Kim Jong-un, North Koreans seem to be less gullible than in the past. Equally important: the DPRK’s policies are endlessly sexist. The only women who enjoyed substantial authority were the Kim’s wives, wives, and sisters, and their influence immediately dissipated when a succession took place.
If not among Kim’s connections, then who would become the next Great Successor? Kim Jong-un’s tendency to transfer, replace, and purge his assistants doesn’t leave a number two obvious, which may well be his intention. At the end of June, he demoted some senior officials for “having created a serious incident while ensuring the security of the state and the security of the population”. However, rather than following Uncle Jang into oblivion, they rose to lower positions.
Given the absence of an obvious heir apparent, a succession fight would likely be brutal and unpredictable. The heads of the security agencies could seize the brass ring. In the Soviet Union, longtime secret police chief Lavrentiy Beria failed when he ran for the top post in 1953; KGB leader Yuri Andropov won the leadership of the Communist Party in 1982, but died soon after. The military could claim power or play the role of kingmaker while extracting promises to protect the institution’s role and privileges.
Collective leadership could emerge, at least initially. However, North Korean politics have always featured a dominant leader. The same is true for the South, although since 1987 it has relied on elections to select the men and women who govern. The very nature of the North Korean system – totalitarian with no safety net for those who fail – puts a premium on finishing ahead of the pack. As Donald Trump might say, second place is for the losers.
There is very little the United States could do to influence the outcome. However, the Biden administration should watch carefully if instability appears to threaten. Washington also has reason to maintain open communication with China on potential political challenges in the North. The best-case scenario would be a new Reform government, which everyone should hope for, but no one should expect.
The worst-case scenario would be a bitter factional struggle that turns violent, with military clashes and the release of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. When Bruce Bennett analyzed the possibility of a collapse of the DPRK almost a decade ago, he warned: “There is a reasonable probability that North Korean totalitarianism will end in the foreseeable future, with the very high likelihood that this end will be accompanied by considerable violence and upheaval. “This possibility, though small, is terrifying enough to warrant conversations with the Republic of Korea and China on how to protect peace and stability in the world. the peninsula in the event of the DPRK’s implosion.
Of course, none of this could happen, at least now. Indeed, it is highly likely that Kim Jong-un will be healthy, or at least healthy enough to survive the next few years. Which would defeat the latest wave of speculation. Indeed, so serious are the possible consequences of his death, many people in the West could pray for his well-being.
One day, the Kim dynasty will pass from the scene. Until then, absences and bandages involving Kim Jong-un will matter not only to people living on the Korean Peninsula, but around the world. Hopefully peace will survive his death.
Doug Bandow is Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. Former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is the author of several books, including Tripwire: Korea and US Foreign Policy in a Changed World and co-author of The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea.