What would happen if Kim Jong Un died? This is not a question often discussed.
While articles on the subjects like “should Trump attack North Korea?” or “does Kim Jong Un need terror to maintain stability?” occasionally do appear, articles regarding, say, decapitation strikes on the DPRK, are much rarer.
In other words, while it is OK to discuss scenarios which involve many deaths, talking about the prospect of one man dying or being killed is more taboo.
This author doesn’t believe that these taboos are a helpful thing – in fact, rational discussion is better in nearly all cases.
With this in mind, let’s examine what might happen if Kim Jong Un passed away – so we can be better prepared if it actually happens.
There have, of course, been periods in North Korean history when the country did not have a successor-in-waiting.
The first was before Kim Jong Il had been appointed in the early 1960s. The second began when Kim Il Sung died in 1994 and before Kim Jong Un first appeared in 2009. The third began in 2011 — and continues to this day.
The first thing that needs to be said about this sudden scenario is that news of Kim Jong Un’s death – be it a natural or an unnatural one – would come as an utter shock to the North Korean elite.
For them, it would mean that for the first time in their lives they would have to deal with an unplanned succession of power – and for the first time in their lives to live in the shadow of a Kim.
News of Kim Jong Un’s death – be it a natural or an unnatural death – would come as an utter shock to the North Korean elite
This would also represent a crisis with no safe pattern of behavior. In 1994, the safe way was to accept Kim Il Sung’s choice and choose Kim Jong Il. In 2011, they chose to follow Kim Jong Un, per his father’s will. Should Kim Jong Un die, there wouldn’t be such an option.
THE GREAT SUCCESSOR
The immediate disintegration of the North Korean system following the death of Kim Jong Un is extremely unlikely. History suggests that totalitarian states usually do not end this way: Soviet people did not rebel when Stalin died, nor did the Chinese when Mao died.
The first thing which needs to be said is that North Korea, like the Soviet Union before it, does not have an official line of succession. This is unusual — in the United States, for example, if the President dies, they are are succeeded by the Vice President, who will be replaced by the Speaker of the House of Representatives if they die.
North Korea has nothing of the sort and never did. When President Kim Il Sung died, his position became vacant, and none of his four Vice-Presidents stepped in.
When Chairman Kim Jong Il died, vice-chairman Jang Song Thaek did not step in (though he likely wanted to). The positions of the head of state are considered still occupied until the successor is sworn in.
The immediate disintegration of the North Korean system following the death of Kim Jong Un is extremely unlikely
So, should Kim Jong Un die, it would be natural to assume that a power struggle would ensue. There is a good chance that eventually one of the top Party leaders would take over, given that the Party’s superiority over all other institutions has never been questioned.
Given that two of the three members of the Politburo Standing Committee are very old, for now it appears to be its third member – Chairman of the Organization and Guidance Department Choe Ryong Hae – who seems like the most realistic candidate to replace Kim.
Indeed, he is not only the only young man in the Party’s top echelons, but he is also directly responsible for all appointments in the top elite.
Choe Ryong Hae, or another successor, would then be faced with a choice. Should he sit on the throne, or should he install a figurehead from the Kim family – Kim Yo Jong looks like a most logical choice – in order to preserve the tradition of family rule?
Recent experience, however, makes the first option more realistic. When Kim Jong Un was placed on the throne, some powerful officials – like Jang Song Thaek and possibly Vice-Marshal Ri Yong Ho – entertained dreams of controlling him. This dream ended in their untimely deaths.
As a result, tradition or not, formal ascension to the position of Supreme Leader may be seen by the successor as the only way to preserve their life.
HOW WILL THE SUCCESSION TAKE PLACE?
Institutions, typically, do not matter much in a country like North Korea. While various officials are officially elected, in practice there are appointed by the Supreme Leader, Organization and Guidance department, Cadre Departments, local Party chairmen, etc.
However, one can guess that in a time of crisis – and the sudden death of Kim Jong Un would certainly qualify as such – formal rules and regulations in the system might start playing a role. Should the elite be split, it may be a formal vote by, say, the Central Committee which decides who is in charge.
Thus it makes sense to investigate how the appointment of the top leader is formally done in the North, and as one can see below, this is a not something to be done at a meeting of a few top officials.
To elect the Chairman of the Party, one needs to convene a Conference or a Congress. To elect the head of state, the Chairman of the State Affairs Commission, one needs to convene a session of the Supreme People’s Assembly – the SPA Standing Committee does not have that authority.
To amend the Party covenant or the Constitution, and change the formal rules, one needs exactly the same: a Congress/Conference or a SPA session. This cannot be done quickly and time is always of the essence in such situations.
Thus, it looks more likely that a SPA session or a Party event to anoint the next Supreme Leader would be a mere formality and the actual decision would be made earlier – which, of course, leaves even more space for initial instability.
Institutions, typically, do not matter much in a country like North Korea
LOOK TO THE FUNERAL COMMITTEE
Should the leader die, there will be one very important indicator about who is going to succeed him. Even if not directly mentioned in the announcement of the leader’s passing, the chairperson of his funeral committee will, almost certainly, be the designated successor.
This is a very old tradition dating back to the Soviet Union, when the General Secretary-to-be was chairman of the funeral committee of the previous General Secretary. In North Korea, too, Kim Jong Il chaired the Kim Il Sung committee and Kim Jong Un chaired that of his father.
A case where the same scheme worked for a post-Communist dictatorship with an unclear succession line would be Turkmenistan. Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, of course, served as the Chairman of the funeral Committee of the President-for-Life Saparmurat Niyazov, the Father of All Turkmens.
When Niyazov died, there was much speculation about who was going to succeed him – but those who remembered the Soviet tradition knew that the decision had been made: it would be Berdimuhamedow.
The chairman of the funeral committee is the new king – or rather, the new king is the chairman. Absence of a chairman means that the elite is divided – if the members are listed in alphabetical order, that might mean that the decision on the leadership has been postponed – and observers should prepare for a power struggle.
WHAT WILL THE SUCCESSOR DO?
The death of dictator usually leads to reform. Kim Il Sung knew this – and his ingenious attempt to covert North Korea into an absolute monarchy was largely aimed at preventing this. Despite this, Kim Jong Il passed some reforms in the 1990s – most notably dramatically reducing the persecution of families of political offenders.
In fact, Kim Jong Un appears to be the exception to this rule. Being not the first but the second man to inherit power from his father, he could afford such a luxury.
Any successor to the Kim dynasty would be faced with a need to explain to the people and to the elite why he is better than his infinitely great predecessors. Kim Jong Un’s source of legitimacy was and is his loyalty to his father and grandfather.
The new chairman would need to get results quickly, lest the subjects grow impatient.
Reforms may be limited, like that of the above-mentioned Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, or they may be radical, like that of Nikita Khrushchev and Deng Xiaoping. The scale of reforms, of course, would depend on the personality of the leader and the conditions of the country.
From what this author knows about Choe Ryong Hae, on a personal level this man is a monster even by the standards of the North Korean elite. However, paradoxically, being an amoral schemer does not stop one from becoming a reformist.
Perhaps the most well-known example is the chief of the Soviet secret police Lavrentiy Beria, who proved himself to be a competent reformer after Stalin’s death in 1953 — before being purged by his colleagues.
It is thus possible that Choe could become the North Korea’s Beria, should Kim Jong Un die – and there is a great deal of economic and political reforms he could pass which would be popular but which would not threaten his grasp on power and could earn him a reputation as a reformer.
A reformist successor would need money to for his projects. And here he would be able to use one bargaining chip Kim Jong Un cannot afford to lose – he would actually be able to surrender nuclear weapons in exchange for massive economic assistance and investment.
Kim Jong Un could not afford this because he knows that first of all, this would be perceived as a betrayal of his father’s line, to which time and again he claims unconditional loyalty, and because foreign investors might be reluctant to invest in a country ruling by a dictatorial dynasty.
However, investing in a country run by reformer struggling against a dictator’s legacy is a different matter entirely.
Unlike Kim, a potential non-dynastic successor would need to conduct reforms to maintain power – and these reforms would also directly and indirectly make the North more attractive to investors.
As for the nukes, surrendering them would be an unpopular move – but if it resulted in huge economic growth, it could be sold to the people.
A potential non-dynastic successor would need to conduct reforms to maintain power
Kim Jong Un’s North Korea, if nuke-less, would still struggle to attract investors and would not be safe from a military intervention – thus it will never relinquish its arsenal.
A reformist successor’s North Korea would have no such problems – and why would any major power – China, United States – anyone – invade a country led by a reformer?
One thing that it should be noted, however, is that these reforms may not last. Once his position is secured and a new order is set, the successor might face less necessity to continue with reforms. Still, by that time, the established policy line would be more moderate than a current one.
The DPRK leader’s death would mean that the North Korean state would lose a lot of legitimacy in the eyes of its people, and that after the initial crisis, reforms look likely in the short-to-medium term.
Kim Jong Un is still a young man — estimated to be 35 years old — and it seems unlikely that he will pass away in the near future. But North Korea is a land of surprises, and his successors will need to be prepared.
Edited by Oliver Hotham
Featured image: KCNA
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