- By Isaac Stone FishIsaac Stone Fish is FP's Asia editor. A Mandarin speaker, he lived in China for seven years before moving to Washington, D.C. His articles have also appeared in the New York Times, the Economist, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, and he has appeared as a commentator on MSNBC, the BBC, NPR, Al Jazeera, and PRI, among others.
It’s now been 36 days since Kim Jong Un was last seen in public. Is his absence good for North Korea and the threat it poses to the rest of the world? Or should we hope that he returns?
Most North Korea experts seem to believe that he soon will indeed end his absence — or that he will at least give a signal of his continued grip on power. Oct. 10, which marks the country’s Party Founding Day, has been cited as a possible time for his return. By contrast, many Western news sources — or at least their headlines — are speculating that Kim has met with a serious illness, or been ousted in a coup. Headlines like the Guardian‘s "Kim Jong Un: Has the North Korean Dynasty Fallen?" abound.
Setting aside for now the impossible question of where Kim has gone — Pyongyang’s state-run media say he is sick, though he could also be under house arrest, dead, on vacation, or simply bored of appearing in public — North Korea is arguably much more stable with Kim at the helm. (First, the eternal caveat when writing about North Korea: The country is more opaque than an eye afflicted with cataracts, so much of what I’m writing is speculation.)
The most dangerous thing about North Korea is its unpredictability. Because we know so little about what Pyongyang wants, or why it does what it does, it’s difficult to prepare for contingencies. North Korea has recently taken several steps to improve its ability to fire missiles at the United States: It has upgraded its main rocket-launch site, increased production of fissile material, and tested engines for a missile that could reach U.S. territory. Military planners and decision-makers in the U.S. government — and in other countries — need to be able to predict the likelihood that Kim will launch an attack on their country.
In Pyongyang’s fog-filled corridors of power, Kim, who took power in December 2011 following the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, is a relatively known quantity.
The outside world knows more about Kim — his background, his health, and his proclivities — than any other North Korean in North Korea. And while no American official is known to have met with Kim, many high-ranking Chinese have. Some of this received wisdom presumably filters into Washington during high-level meetings with Beijing. (Classified material presumably offers a richer look at the internal workings of both Pyongyang and Kim’s own mind.)
By contrast, consider the septuagenarian Vice Marshal Hwang Pyong-so, a recently promoted military official who some see as North Korea’s second most powerful man, and whose name often pops up in conversations about potential coups in North Korea. The most detailed and credible description of Hwang that I was able to find in English comes from Michael Madden, who mans the North Korea Leadership Watch blog: "Hwang is reputed to have had close political ties to Kim Jong Un’s mother, Ko Yong Hui. He is married and has adult children who work in the central party and foreign trade. Hwang is mild-mannered and affable and has a ‘protector’ or INFJ personality." And that’s basically it.
Yes, it’s very difficult to guess how much of Kim’s personality veers towards the closet reformer, the pragmatic, the hard-liner, or the madman. But Hwang, and anyone else who may be a leader-in-waiting, are even lesser-known quantities — making guessing that much harder. Because the world would likely have more difficulty predicting or understanding decision-making if someone like Hwang ruled North Korea, that added uncertainty would make the country that much more dangerous.
Moreover, if Kim is or will soon be dead or deposed, his successor would have far less legitimacy. Kim Il Sung, who ruled from 1948 until his death in 1994, is a universally beloved figure in North Korea whose personality cult underpins the state’s existence. Some of that popularity was passed to his son, Kim Jong Il, who in turn legitimized his son, Kim Jong Un. According to the mythology of the Kim clan, the family exists to protect the country’s existence in a fraught, dangerous world. If Kim Jong Un has or will be deposed — and won’t function as a figurehead — the new leaders will need to establish credibility in the eyes of North Koreans, most of whom have spent their entire lives ruled by a member of the Kim bloodline.
It’s likely that North Korea’s new leaders would crack down domestically and lash out internationally, at least initially, as they consolidated power. More missile launches, nuclear tests, and mass purges could ensue.
Even if a Kim family member took control — the Global Post speculates that Kim Jong Un’s little sister Kim Yo Jong may be running the country in Kim’s absence — he or she would still lack the legitimacy of Kim Jong Un, who has been the subject of a multiyear propaganda campaign throughout North Korea.
If Kim has fallen, would North Korea descend into chaos? I’ve heard North Korea compared to a bicycle from which the rider had already dismounted: a wobbly country that will one day — maybe in a few months, maybe in decades — topple.
In the long term, Kim’s fall would probably be a good thing. It would likely lead to reunification with South Korea, giving North Koreans good governance, higher living standards, access to the outside world, and basic human rights. But in the short term it could lead to civil war, another famine, and possibly the sale of North Korea’s nuclear weapons to rogue states or a terrorist group.
Another popular metaphor for North Korea: A robber walks up to a pedestrian (say, China or the United States), points a gun at his own head, and screams, "Give me your money or I’ll shoot." The threat is both that the pedestrian doesn’t want to be responsible for the death of the robber, nor does he want the robber’s brains splattered across his clothes. Much of the burden of an imploding North Korea would fall on the backs of North Koreans, but the country’s collapse could also destabilize northeast China by sending hundreds of thousands of refugees across North Korea’s northern border — and allow rogue elements in North Korea to sell nuclear material to enemies of the United States.
So how worried should we be? There are certainly signs that something strange is afoot. Three top North Korean officials — on what appeared to be just 24 hours’ notice — visited South Korea on Oct. 4, the highest-level contact between the two sides in years. Nothing seems amiss in the English-language news website of the Korean Central News Agency, an international mouthpiece for Pyongyang — besides the Oct. 6 article "DPRK Premier Learns about Farming in South Hwanghae Province." It’s usually Kim carrying out these investigations — and it’s a curious sign when someone other than Kim Jong Un is looking at things.
For the record, I don’t think this is the end of Kim. His disappearance is unusual, but then again, very little of North Korea’s behavior appears usual. On Oct. 10, we will likely see photos of Kim waving to a massive crowd, his hair swept back, his posture confident, his weight intact.
And, surprising as it may sound, the sight of his trademark goofy grin should be a relief.