SEOUL—Whatever the condition of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un at the moment—and supposedly informed speculation ranges from dead, to comatose, to just chilling at his personal resort in Wonsan—his absence from public view for more than two weeks now is a reminder that his demise could plunge his country and the region, maybe even the world, into a huge new geopolitical crisis.
For now his younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, looks like the understudy waiting in the wings to take the lead if her brother cannot function. He’s positioned her for that role, and groomed her for it. But if Kim Jong Un dies, it’s fair to say all hell could break loose.
Many analysts believe China would move swiftly to consolidate control over North Korea if Kim Jong Un is no longer able to govern effectively. Chinese concerns, like those of the U.S. and just about every other country with a stake in the region, focus not only on who’s in charge of North Korea but more specifically on what happens to North Korea’s nukes. If there is a chaotic battle for succession, who will secure them?
A Chinese medical team known to be in the North right now presumably is looking after Kim, and looking out for Beijing’s interests. If Kim is indeed in grave condition, Chinese Leader Xi Jinping will be the first to know.
And then what?
“I’m very sure the Chinese will send their army into North Korea,” says defector Ken Eom, who served 10 years in Pyongyang's military and is now a prominent analyst in the South. “They have already planned what they will do.”
Chinese concern about Korea goes deep into history, and was never more evident than in the Korean War, when half a million Chinese died driving U.S. and South Korean troops out of North Korea after they reached the Yalu River border between Korea and China in the early months of the war in 1950.
It’s not as though North Korea would threaten China, the source of all its oil and half its food, but the Chinese want to be sure the Americans don’t get there first in the confusion of a power vacuum if Kim is no longer around, factions compete to succeed him, and the fate of his nuclear missile arsenal hangs in the balance.
The results could be very bloody.
Choi Jin-wook, former director of the Korea Institute of National Unification, believes it’s “very unlikely” that North Korean authorities would invite the Chinese into their country as in the Korean War. “That is very dangerous,” he says. “They will face a tough response from the North Korean side, probably an exchange of fire,” he predicts, but if U.S. or South Korean troops enter North Korea, “that is a different story.”
It’s been more than eight years since Kim Jong Un inherited the family dynasty, and North Korea’s relations with China may never have been better since Kim first journeyed to Beijing—his first trip outside the country as North Korea’s leader—in March of 2018.
With sister Yo Jong always hovering nearby, he spent three days seeing President Xi Jinping and other top officials on a mission that set the course for future close ties.
The encounter had much to do with Kim agreeing to see President Donald Trump for the first U.S.-North Korean summit in Singapore in June 2018. Xi hosted Kim again in May, a month before the summit, in the industrial port city of Dalian, agreeing to send him and his entourage to Singapore on a Chinese plane. And one week after the summit, as if reporting back to his patron, Kim again called on Xi in Beijing.
The presence of Kim Yo Jong, present for many of these encounters, would seem to guarantee continuity. She could pick up where her brother left off, but it’s likely that long-suppressed rivalries will explode if Kim Jong Un is not, in fact, on one of his yachts lying low during the COVID-19 pandemic, and really is at death’s door, or through it.
“If factions face off, a vicious internal conflict is certain, and a civil war not unthinkable,” writes Michael Auslin at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution in the journal Foreign Policy. “With North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile sites potentially falling into the hands of whoever acts most quickly, Asia could face an unprecedented nuclear crisis.”
Kim Yo Jong now owes her role as number two to him and to the authority that she’s believed to exert over the North’s Organization and Guidance Department, the entity with life-or-death power over all aspects of North Korean society. She’s the de facto leader of the OGD as well as Bureau 39, the office that controls the North’s money, including counterfeit U.S. currency printed on a press imported from Switzerland.
“She’s in charge,” says Ken Eom, but “that doesn’t mean she’ll be in charge when her brother is no longer around.”
Assuming Kim Yo Jong will face trouble from powerful men who just can’t accept the notion of a woman dominating them, at least two other figures are to be reckoned with.
One is Kim Pyong Il, the much younger half brother of the late North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. That makes him not only Yo Jong and Jong Un’s uncle but also the son of Kim Il Sung, who founded the North Korean state after the Japanese surrender in 1945. At 65, he’s still theoretically capable of carrying on the dynasty’s bloodline.
Kim Pyong Il faces, however, what may be insurmountable problems. He spent nearly 40 years in a kind of exile as ambassador to eastern European countries before he was summoned back to Pyongyang last November.
“Nobody knows him,” says Shim Jae-hoon, who writes about Korea for Yale Global. “He’s been away too long.” But he still could serve as figurehead leader over restive, quarreling subordinates. “It’s almost possible,” says Ken Eom, “but he might not last long.”
And then there’s the top non-family contender, Choe Ryong Hae, whose title as President of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly makes him North Korea’s titular head of state. Choe, who also is first vice chairman of the state affairs commission, through which Kim as chairman wields his power, has his own bloodline—his father fought with Kim Il Sung against Japanese rule as a guerilla in Manchuria.
Choe, however, has had an up-and-down career, once having been forced out of the hierarchy for “reeducation” as a laborer for involvement in a scheme to sell scrap metal—a crime that sometimes merits execution. In his case, his father’s old-time bond with Kim Il Sung saved him.
On the plus side, Choe’s son is rumored to have been married to Kim Yo Jong.
“Choe is next at the moment,” says Choi Jin-wook, “but he is not a Kim, though from a guerrilla family.” But would that lineage do the trick?
“I cannot find any alternative to this Stalinist dynasty,” says Choi. “This will lead to the end of the Kim dynasty. Enough is enough.There is no legitimate person, and it is going to be anybody’s game. Maybe big chaos.”
Xi Jinping would like to stand above the fray, pressuring competing factions to get along.
In that spirit Xi received Kim for the fourth time in extraordinary pomp and circumstance in Beijing in January last year, six weeks before Trump’s second summit with Kim in Hanoi. Then, last June, after the failure of the Trump-Kim summit in February, Kim received Xi in Pyongyang—the first visit by a Chinese leader to the North Korean capital in 14 years.
All those displays of mutual good-will, however, may have been for naught if Kim Jong Un is no longer around. “I do not think Kim is yet dead,” says Ken Eom, but, “I think he’s got a serious problem.”