3 Scenarios for Kim Jong Un’s Mysterious Absence

The United States and South Korea should be ready to cooperate whether Kim is dead, sick, or about to reappear.

This picture, taken on July 4, 2017, and released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency, shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (center) celebrating the successful test fire of the intercontinental ballistic missile Hwasong-14 at an undisclosed location.
This picture, taken on July 4, 2017, and released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency, shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (center) celebrating the successful test fire of the intercontinental ballistic missile Hwasong-14 at an undisclosed location. STR/AFP via Getty Images

The recent spate of rumors and thinly sourced reports about Kim Jong Un’s status shows how the leader’s health is a wild card in the North Korean system. Whenever one of the three generations of Kim leaders was not seen in public for a prolonged period, speculation has run rampant. The current leader is only in his mid-30s but has visible health problems and has been out of sight for over two weeks. Notably, for the first time since coming to power in 2011, Kim missed national ceremonies on the April 15 holiday memorializing his grandfather, regime founder and eternal president Kim Il Sung.

Official sources in Pyongyang remain silent about Kim’s status, although this is not unusual for the secretive regime. It may be that he is recovering from an illness or medical operation or is distancing himself from a coronavirus outbreak in North Korea. The regime may be taking time to regroup from recent setbacks, strategizing after South Korea’s legislative election and before the presidential election in the United States, or simply looking to keep its rivals guessing to test how they will react. Or perhaps the propaganda department is struggling how to explain the unexplainable—a grievously ill, or even dead, Kim.

From a policy perspective, while it is important to be cautious about uncorroborated reports, it is necessary to prepare for major scenarios. Kim might reappear sometime soon, apparently in control of North Korea. He might remain out of sight, potentially incapacitated, for a prolonged period of time. Or he might be confirmed dead or incapable of governing. The challenges and expectations for allied responses to each of these three scenarios are not mutually exclusive. Whatever the fate of the North Korean leader, close cooperation between the United States and South Korea is essential.

Scenario 1: Kim reappears in full control.

One scenario is that after completing his recovery or other tasks out of the public eye, Kim visibly returns to the helm of the North Korean state. In the face of North Korea’s policy continuity, Washington and Seoul still need to coordinate their strategic approach toward Pyongyang. Enduring objectives would be to avoid military escalation, prevent the unraveling of sanctions enforcement, and seek opportunities to resume diplomacy.

The challenge, however, will be to smooth over differences between Seoul’s priority of cross-border engagement and Washington’s priority of denuclearization. U.S. President Donald Trump is preoccupied with his reelection campaign and the COVID-19 epidemic in the United States. In contrast, South Korean President Moon Jae-in is determined to double down on inter-Korean cooperation after Seoul managed to flatten the curve of its COVID-19 epidemic and Moon’s party won a landslide victory in legislative elections. For starters, Moon reiterated that public health cooperation with North Korea is the most urgent task during a meeting with his advisors on April 27, the two-year anniversary of the inter-Korean summit’s Panmunjom Declaration.

While it makes sense for Seoul to test for opportunities to improve relations, it remains to be seen if Pyongyang will respond favorably to Seoul’s overtures. But the U.S.-South Korea alliance could experience friction if cross-border projects require the easing of key sanctions or are perceived as diverging from a coordinated approach to incentivize denuclearization. If the Koreas successfully cooperate on a coronavirus response via a reopened liaison office in Kaesong and resume other cultural and humanitarian exchanges, these would be relatively uncontroversial. Gradually resuming inter-Korean rail and road connection projects would then be diplomatically plausible as Seoul is likely to coordinate with United Nations bodies and consult with Washington.

However, if the Moon government attempted to restart larger economic projects—like tours to North Korea or the Kaesong Industrial Complex—those efforts could contradict significant U.N. and U.S. sanctions. Washington will want Pyongyang to take credible denuclearization steps to justify the sanctions relief required. The United States and South Korea need to stay on the same page in order for the alliance to effectively support meaningful diplomacy with Pyongyang and prevent North Korean wedge-driving and extortion tactics.

Scenario 2: Kim remains unseen, potentially incapacitated.

A second scenario is that Kim Jong Un remains out of sight and potentially incapacitated for an indefinite period of time, increasing uncertainty about the stability of North Korea, which, in turn, could raise the risks of miscalculation, miscommunication, and unintended escalation. As Kim’s de facto chief of staff and closest confidante sharing the Mount Paektu bloodline, his sister Kim Yo Jong could step in as the acting leader. Or a power struggle might ensue, as it is unprecedented for a woman in her early 30s to lead the North Korean regime. The leadership structure will be highly uncertain until there is official confirmation from Pyongyang—and even then, the interim leader’s position may not be secure. Neighboring countries will likely take a wait-and-see approach until there is concrete evidence on North Korea’s internal dynamics.

Seoul and Washington must closely share intelligence while responding together in a timely manner in the event of any North Korean provocation. Pyongyang might turn inward but then test more missiles to reinforce domestic order as well as show strength internationally. If Kim Yo Jong is at the helm, North Korea might continue with the current level of military exercises and missile tests (short- and medium-range) in line with her brother’s strategy ahead of the U.S. presidential election in November. However, there might be competing voices as government elites jostle to establish themselves in the temporary order, producing pressure for a more hawkish weapons-testing agenda, more aggressive sanctions-busting, and more provocative rhetoric toward South Korea, Japan, and the United States.

In this case, the alliance may be at a disadvantage owing to existing political strains and the currently reduced schedule of combined military exercises, particularly full-scale field exercises. If the alliance looks weakened or underfunded, it will also lack credibility. Washington and Seoul should thus swiftly conclude negotiations on the Special Measures Agreement to provide defense cost-sharing for hosting U.S. troops in South Korea. And if Pyongyang ramps up missile launches, Japan and South Korea must overcome recent spats to allow smooth intelligence-sharing. While the allies need to maintain readiness and deterrence, they must also be careful not to misinterpret shows of force that are aimed at rivals or the North Korean public, rather than at the United States, South Korea, and Japan.

Scenario 3: Kim is dead or incapable of governing.

A third scenario is that North Korea confirms Kim Jong Un is dead or incapable of governing. Who leads the country will first depend on whether Kim anointed someone to take over or if someone can credibly claim to have received his dying injunction for how the country should be governed. The likelihood of an immediate regime collapse is slim because the North Korean state and even national identity have been institutionalized, with overlapping interests between the Kim family and North Korea’s political, economic, and military elites.

This scenario leaves more room for political power struggles among various domestic factions and the possibility that international actors may misread the situation inside North Korea. Possible candidates jockeying for power besides Kim’s sister include his uncle Kim Pyong Il, who despite being effectively exiled for decades as an ambassador in European capitals, returned to North Korea last year and may have support among the elite of his generation. A dark horse could emerge from the Kim lineage, Workers’ Party officials, or military generals, especially if there were initially a collective leadership arrangement that narrowed over time. Even if Kim’s sister were elevated, it would be unclear how long she would be able to maintain her grip on power.

Amid the pandemic, Washington, Seoul, and Beijing are not adequately prepared for another crisis. Clarity about the facts on the ground needs to be established (and mutually understood) by all sides. Beijing will likely respect North Korea’s decision on a leadership succession or transition without directly injecting itself to influence the outcome. However, it would probably send humanitarian assistance and prevent a mass exodus of refugees across its border in the event of North Korean instability. As Beijing could move quickly on a range of actions, Washington and Seoul need to be in close and constant consultation.

Both allies would be well advised to send condolences to the Kim family and North Korean people, even if this sticks in the throat and provides ammunition to political rivals. Washington should reaffirm its commitment to the 2018 Singapore vision shared by Trump and Kim on a new relationship, peace regime, and denuclearization. South Korea should likewise reaffirm its commitment to inter-Korean agreements, and both allies ought to express hope for working with the new North Korean leadership to fulfill those goals. An attempt to intervene in North Korea and force change would be an exceedingly dangerous move that not only risks clashes with North Korean forces but a broader conflict between China and the U.S.-South Korea alliance.

U.S.-South Korea coordination at all levels of government must be ironclad, from the big political questions to the technical command and control issues. Seoul and Washington will need to review and calibrate contingency plans, such as Operational Plan 5029, for conducting joint military maneuvers in the event of instability or regime collapse, including efforts to secure North Korea’s strategic assets. The feasibility of the plan remains an open question, and progressive South Korean governments tend to prefer avoiding conversations regarding a North Korean regime collapse. The United States and South Korea have a working group on North Korea that will need to remain adequately staffed with officials from both sides who are empowered to coordinate policy.

Seoul and Washington would also need a unified message, setting expectations for China’s role and inviting Beijing, Tokyo, and Moscow to discuss and coordinate a range of contingency plans in advance. Such coordination will be more difficult because of the recent deterioration in U.S.-China relations with Beijing’s increased assertiveness, the trade war, and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. Beijing has historically refused discussing North Korean contingency plans with Washington and Seoul, but private consultations will be necessary to prevent miscalculation over possible dangers if there is a loss of control in Pyongyang, including the safety and security of weapons of mass destruction and fissile materials, weapons exports, and a refugee crisis across North Korea’s shared borders with China, Russia, and South Korea.

Regional coordination will be imperative to prevent any instability or crisis in North Korea from escalating into a regional conflict. The allies need the concerted will—despite all the political distractions—to coordinate very closely with Beijing, Tokyo, and Moscow in any emergency situation. Intelligence cooperation will be particularly important between Washington and its allies, as well as between Seoul and Tokyo using their General Security of Military Information Agreement. If a flow of U.S. forces to the Korean Peninsula is necessary, U.S. bases in Japan will be indispensable. Washington and Seoul will also need to work closely with the U.N. Security Council and various organizations that can provide humanitarian and financial assistance during a crisis.

The latest mystery behind Kim’s health and whereabouts will be solved with North Korea’s confirmation in due course. If he is alive, this will not be the last time rumors fly regarding a premature death. Still, this episode can serve as a wake-up call to the U.S.-South Korea alliance on the need for close and advance coordination on scenarios surrounding the health of the North Korean leader.

Kim palace intrigue is not gossip about a photogenic royal family or an entertaining Korean drama. It’s a matter of life and death for the North Korean people and how a human rights-abusing and nuclear weapons-pursuing regime will persist or fall, with implications for peace and security in Asia and beyond. If and when the time comes, the U.S.-South Korea alliance needs to be ready.

Duyeon Kim is a senior advisor for Northeast Asia and nuclear policy at the International Crisis Group. She is a columnist at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

Leif-Eric Easley is an associate professor of international studies at Ewha University in Seoul. His research focuses on trilateral cooperation among South Korea, Japan, and the United States on engaging China, Myanmar, and North Korea.