5 Things to Know If Kim Jong Un Dies

Hereditary dictatorships rarely last past three generations, and collapse may be in the cards for North Korea.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attends a wreath-laying ceremony at the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum in Hanoi on March 2, 2019. Dien Bien/Getty Images

North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong Un, was reported to have had a cardiovascular procedure on April 12, treating a health condition allegedly stemming from “excessive smoking, obesity, and overwork,” according to one South Korean publication. Since then, Kim has not made any public appearances; he was absent from April 15 celebrations of North Korea’s most important holiday, the birthday of his grandfather and founder of the regime, Kim Il Sung. On Saturday, April 25, he even missed the annual parade celebrating the founding of the armed forces. Panic has reportedly broken out in North Korea’s capital of Pyongyang, where residents are buying up necessities in preparation for the worst.

As a result, there is much speculation that the North Korean leader is gravely ill. U.S. officials and the intelligence community have received reports about Kim’s troubled health, but, given the closed nature of North Korea, it is impossible to accurately assess the severity of Kim’s condition.

If Kim dies, or is even incapacitated, it poses a serious threat to the regime. The hereditary nature of North Korea’s government means that internal stability is heavily reliant on the smooth succession to a new leader—which likely means one of Kim’s family members. But, as I found in my recent study of all hereditary autocracies since World War II, passing power is particularly difficult in family dictatorships, where the ability to find an individual who is both competent and enjoys elites’ support is relatively low, due to the small pool of candidates. As in medieval monarchies, succession crises become the norm, and obscure figures or new dynasties rise as a result: Since World War II, no family dictatorship has ever managed to pass power for a third time.

The situation is dire in North Korea, where there is no clear successor to Kim. Instability in North Korea would have immediate and long-term implications for the region and U.S.-China competition. Here are five things you need to know as speculation about Kim’s health continues.

1. If the regime collapses, it will happen quickly.

A common characteristic of family dictatorships is rapid and often unexpected collapse. Most failed regimes disintegrate completely in less than a year from the first signs of crisis: Experts have speculated about the potential collapse of the North Korean regime for decades, for example, during Kim’s monthlong absence from the public eye in 2014. The rumors about Kim’s health are of great interest, because the expectation of a power transition can be enough to spark such a crisis.

The durability of the Kim regime is a historical anomaly. Twelve out of 18 family dictatorships in place since World War II have collapsed, with the average lasting 32 years. In contrast, the North Korean regime has endured for over seven decades, despite famine, economic crisis, international sanctions, and restrictions on foreign trade, as well as two transitions of power. There is currently no formidable outside challenge to the Kim dynasty, neither by the military nor by the North Korean people.

However, this past resiliency tells us little about the future, because a common characteristic of family dictatorships is rapid and often unexpected collapse. It doesn’t help that Kim hasn’t designated a successor, and the most likely candidate is a woman—Kim’s sister Kim Yo Jong—which would be unprecedented for authoritarian hereditary regimes.

2. The United States is prepared, kind of.

The U.S. military plans for two main scenarios: a North Korean attack on South Korea and the collapse of North Korea. The United States conducts a number of annual joint exercises with South Korea to test and hone their preparedness in these contingencies. The alliance is strong, with both countries continually improving their joint operational effectiveness. For example, the Combined Forces Command, established in 1978, comprises equal numbers of U.S. and South Korean officers. The command’s structures and processes have allowed the two countries to build strong operational integration, enabling military decision-making that is faster and more efficient than if the United States and South Korea had two separate commands.

But transfer of wartime operational control from the United States to South Korea remains unresolved. The two sides are still in the process of making such a command change a viable option, although it will be years before South Korea meets the agreed-upon conditions for that transfer.

Also, the best response to instability in North Korea would depend on an unpredictable variable, the cause of the instability, and there are many possible triggers: refugee problems caused by food shortages, political instability due to fighting factions, a civil war caused by regime change, or a coup. Another big unknown is the dynamics an incapacitated Kim would spark.

It does not help readiness that the United States has put off or scaled back major joint exercises with South Korea since 2018, and both its aircraft carriers dedicated to the region are battling the coronavirus.

3. North Korean nukes would need to be secured quickly.

The United States would face many challenges, alongside South Korea, in the event of collapse in the North. But securing and destroying nuclear weapons and associated facilities would be the top priority. A key part of the strategy to counter North Korean weapons of mass destruction is to prevent the proliferation of material, weapons, and know-how beyond the peninsula to new actors. In a North Korea collapse scenario, the United States would likely seek to establish a cordon sanitaire around the country to prevent nuclear materials from getting out and into the hands of other rogue actors, or even terrorist organizations.

North Korea is currently estimated to have between 20 and 60 nuclear weapons, a stockpile of 75 to 320 kilograms of highly enriched uranium, 39 relevant nuclear sites, and 49 missile sites. Given advancements in its missile technology, North Korea can hit South Korea, Japan, and even potentially the United States with nuclear weapons and has threatened to do so on multiple occasions. Kim or a successor may use nuclear weapons as a last-ditch effort to deter outside intervention that could ensure and accelerate the collapse of the regime.

4. China would take the lead militarily, whether the United States likes it or not.

One big problem is that U.S. contingency planning does not adequately account for the role of Chinese forces in a collapse contingency. The conventional wisdom is that Chinese intervention would largely be limited to dealing with refugees along its border, and any actions taken would be in support of North Korea.

But changes in Chinese military capabilities, heightened concerns about nuclear security, and prioritization of geopolitical competition with the United States have encouraged China to broaden its thinking in recent years. Specifically, China would likely undertake an extensive military intervention with an eye on expanding regional influence if a major conflict broke out on the Korean Peninsula. Recent Chinese statements and military training exercises also point to heightened preparations for intervention.

Moreover, it is likely that the Chinese military would reach North Korean nuclear facilities sooner than U.S. or South Korean troops, thanks to China’s geographical proximity to North Korea, the vicinity of its troops, and the possibility that North Korean troops would exhibit relatively low resistance to Chinese forces. China might also enjoy early warning, allowing for advanced preparation, because the shared border provides China with unique opportunities to collect intelligence. All of this points to the need for the United States to change its planning assumptions to account for the presence of Chinese troops on the peninsula following any credible signs of instability in Pyongyang.

5. The collapse of the Kim regime would likely set back America’s position in Asia.

It is not an exaggeration to say that the future of the U.S. role in Asia, and thus the status of its competition with China for power and influence, rides on how the United States responds to instability on the Korean Peninsula. Unlike China, the United States is not a resident Asian power; it relies on a network of alliance relationships for military access. The unpredictability of U.S. President Donald Trump’s stance on North Korea, vacillating between “fire and fury” and dramatic praise for Kim, may create uncertainty among U.S. allies as to how the country would behave in a confrontation. Similarly, if the United States does not follow through completely on its alliance commitments to South Korea, this could encourage allies to pursue alternative arrangements and seek greater accommodation of China, weakening the U.S. position.

Instability caused by the collapse of the Kim regime would most certainly lead to a civil war that would involve the United States as South Korea’s ally. Hundreds of thousands of troops would be needed for stability and WMD elimination operations in North Korea. Such a war would then likely involve deaths in the order of tens of thousands of people, even millions, and the choice to detonate any U.S. nuclear weapons within North Korea would bring “hellish results,” as the security studies expert Barry Posen has argued. The drain of a major war on the Korean Peninsula would be cataclysmic for U.S. resourcing of the great-power competition with China in other areas and arenas.

In short, while many may cheer at the sign of political troubles in North Korea, the situation is complicated. U.S. policymakers would almost certainly face a deck stacked against them if regime instability hits Pyongyang. It would take once-in-a-generation leadership to create the U.S. statecraft that would navigate the United States safely through a potential crisis.

Oriana Skylar Mastro is a center fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. She is also a foreign policy and defense fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
 Twitter: @osmastro

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