When the majority of people that escaped North Korea were malnourished and destitute commoners from the northern provinces, it was easy to simply paint them all as “refugees,” rather than “defectors.” Armed with nothing but the clothes on their backs and hopes for a better future, the vast majority of them appeared to have escaped from a war zone when they first arrive in the civilized world. By and large, as far as the North Korean regime is concerned, with its own survival specifically in mind, these refugees have mostly been inconsequential.
However, the twelve waitresses who were the children of North Korean elites, high ranking military officers who escaped with North Korean intelligence and large sums of money, and their diplomats are not refugees, but, indeed, defectors.
Being the unoriginal thug that he is, Kim Jong Un only knows two ways to respond to dissent – killing people and taking hostages. The boy king is afraid. And he is right to be. As much as people romanticize the individual, and even more so the strongman when discussing tyrannical regimes, no one single person can ever rule a town much less a country without support from others. With so many defections happening this year alone, even Kim Jong Un would not be stupid enough to fail to wonder whom, if any, he can actually trust.
Although it is hard to say that recent sanctions have definitively played a role in influencing these elites’ decision to defect, it goes without saying that those who support stronger sanctions – this author included – got what they want. At least partially.
The sanctions were never the goal in and of themselves. As has often been repeated, the sanctions were aimed at bringing the North Korean regime to its senses rather than to its knees – for the North Korean regime to become a more responsible member of the international community.
However, even the most optimistic advocate of sanctions knew that it was unlikely for Kim Jong Un to suddenly wake up one morning and realize that he is actually a good-hearted person who had simply been misunderstood by everyone else. He is merely the latest North Korean ruler who is continuing the barbaric work that was begun by his grandfather. The nature of that regime and its history make change difficult, if not unlikely.
The more realistic goal of those who support sanctions is to hurt the elites
Rather, the more realistic goal of those who support sanctions is to hurt the elites. If properly enforced and sustained, the sanctions would be able to foster internal instability as it would cut off Kim Jong Un from as much foreign capital as possible. Without the means to provide the military and the elites with the toys and the lifestyle that they have grown accustomed to, it would only be a matter of time before rats scurry to abandon a sinking ship. A significantly weakened North Korean regime that is far too busy trying to repair holes in its hull would be much easier to twist and bend in future negotiations.
Again, it is unclear if the sanctions have played a key part in this recent state of affairs. Perhaps, as Andrei Lankov suggested, the frequent purges and diluting resolve of younger cadres is more to blame; though it is unlikely that sanctions have played no role as Lankov seems to suggest. Regardless of method, however, this is now the new reality that we live in.
For the rest of the world, it is an opportunity to drive a bigger wedge between the boy king and the nobility. For the boy king himself, it is a sobering realization that anyone he meets could be hiding the dagger that will finally do him in. And we must be open about this. Should Kim Jong Un be assassinated, the assassin will most likely be a member of North Korea’s political elites, possibly someone within the boy king’s innermost circle à la Kim Jae-gyu.
And that possibility is a cause for concern and one that the U.S.-ROK alliance must be prepared for. Is the world prepared for the possible assassination of Kim Jong Un?
Is the world prepared for the possible assassination of Kim Jong Un?
Despite the many previous predictions of North Korea’s imminent collapse, North Korea refuses to careen down the path of history. There are many reasons for this but one cannot underestimate the role that absolute brute power had over the regime’s longevity. The power that the Kims have wielded has made open dissent unthinkable. Yet another reason for North Korea’s resiliency is the preparation that its leaders have taken to ensure smooth successions.
Kim Jong Il was groomed for years before he took over the reins from his father. Although Kim Jong Un didn’t have as much time as his father had to prepare, he, too, was groomed to succeed him. But who would succeed Kim Jong Un should he suddenly die? He himself is not old enough to have heirs who are old enough to take over. Also his estranged brothers are either disgraced or relegated to insignificance and it is doubtful that his sister would command even a fraction of respect that he wields – however much or little that may be.
Although it is unlikely that North Korea will devolve into anarchy overnight without any resistance from one faction or another, it is clear that should Kim Jong Un suddenly die, the Korean Workers Party or whatever that would be left of it might not be able to govern the country. More worrisome than a sudden vacuum of political power, however, is what course of action the North Korean military might take.
If it is no longer clear who they are taking orders from, would the military stand down or disband or would it take over and establish a junta government? Would such a government follow Myanmar’s model and become more aggressive so that it may portray itself as the true defenders of the people of Joseon in order to legitimize its rule? Or would it follow Park Chung-hee’s example and set up a more responsible government that would lead North Korea into a new era of peace and prosperity? But would the allies even have the time to allow that to happen? After all, the most important and immediate concern is what the North Korean military might do with its stockpile of WMD once it is no longer shackled by a civilian government. The risks might be far too great to simply take a wait-and-see approach.
There is no doubt that the combined military might of the U.S.-ROK alliance (with auxiliary Japanese support) would be able to handle any North Korean threat. However, wars are not won on the battlefields alone. Assuming that future South Korean leaders are not as enthusiastic about reunification as President Park Geun-hye, the South Korean government might need to openly or secretly negotiate with China for the purpose of accepting a new North Korean government that is not altogether sovereign or independent from Beijing. However, that would require the South Koreans to swallow their pride and abandon all hopes of ever seeing a unified Korea. Would South Koreans be able to make such a decision? Would they even have a choice in the matter?
Even if the U.S.-ROK alliance moved swiftly to ensure stability and peace within the Korean Peninsula and, just as importantly, within North Korea, it is clear that China cannot be excluded from any unified Korean future. Both the United States and South Korea must plan together in order to understand the myriad of possible repercussions of such an eventuality even if it means that the status quo might be completely upended and also be willing to make painful sacrifices in order to meet those challenges.
It is understandable that neither Washington nor Seoul might be willing to openly discuss what might happen and what would need to be done should Kim Jong Un be assassinated. Considering the latest round of defections, it is clear that North Korea is just a spark away from an uncontrollable conflagration. The last thing that the allies want to do is add fuel to the fire by inadvertently creating a self-fulfilling prophecy by openly discussing hypothetical assassination plots, thus possibly giving any desperate soul in North Korea fanciful ideas.
Considering the latest round of defections, it is clear that North Korea is just a spark away from an uncontrollable conflagration
If open discussions are unpalatable, then such talks need to take place at least quietly. All evidence seems to be pointing that not planning for such an outcome would be disastrous.