Imagine a North Korea without Kim Jong-un

Steven Borowiec

SEOUL (CNA) – On April 21, for the first time in what feels like an eternity, a potentially scary story with no connection to the novel coronavirus pandemic subsumed the news cycle. CNN reported, citing an unnamed United States (US) official with “direct knowledge”, that North Korean leader was in “grave danger” after undergoing surgery.

The report came after Kim was not present at events on April 15 to mark the birthday of his late grandfather, which is typically an important annual event not only for the country but also for him Speculation about Kim’s health isn’t surprising.

The leader has never been known to be particularly healthy. He is overweight and is reputed to have developed a liking for high-calorie food. Even though Kim is only in his mid-30s, he has also been photographed walking with a cane for support.

North Korea is also famously secretive. The country doesn’t have a free press to report on the leadership’s activities, outside of stipulated officialdom. Outsiders who visit stick to official itineraries, seeing only what their minders show them.

Rumours of crisis or violence or upheaval in the North unsurprisingly tend to snowball from thinly-sourced, unverified media reports into international debates about what might come next.

United States (US) President Donald Trump shakes hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un following a meeting in Hanoi, Vietnam in this file photo. PHOTO: AFP

The mere suggestion that Kim was unwell, without a groomed successor in place, was enough to affect markets, with the South Korean currency and stock market sent tumbling the following day.

The uncertainty might have fuelled the South Korea govern-ment’s downplaying such reports, and to US President Donald Trump’s dismissing these as “inaccurate”.

Still, the conversation over what North Korea, a nuclear-armed state, might look like without Kim at the helm has been stewing.

The nightmare scenario arising from speculation is downright frightening: A rudderless North Ko-rea, where the state loses control, could mean unsecured nuclear and chemical weapons, and a flood of refugees into neighbouring China.

But even if Kim were to die, a popular rebellion or overthrow of the system would be extremely unlikely. There is no indication of any movement of any kind in North Korea plotting the regime’s demise and ready to step in at a time of vulnerability.

While North Korea is a black box, its system runs deeper than the rule of any one person. Critics have reportedly been jailed or worse.

North Korea has only known three leaders in its history. Kim’s grandfather founded the country. Kim inherited leadership from his late father, Kim Jong-il, in 2011.

Most speculation settled on Kim’s younger sister Kim Yo-jong as the most logical replacement. She has the inherent legitimacy of being a member of the founding family and has in recent years appeared to have taken a larger role in state affairs.

Kim Yo-jong accompanied her brother to summits in Singapore and Hanoi. Earlier this month, she was also reappointed to the country’s politburo, responsible for setting the policy course of the ruling Workers’ Party.

She has also demonstrated the authority to make official statements in her own name in state media, continuing the family tradition of insulting critics of North Korea’s military actions.

After South Korea condemned a North Korean military drill in March, Kim Yo-jong likened South Korea’s presidential office to “a burnt child dreading fire”, while also calling the South a “frightened dog barking”.

That Kim has risen to his kind of substantive role in a few years demonstrates that her brother and his inner circle trust her.

The goal of these statements is likely for Kim to demonstrate her authority and her toughness. North Korea is a traditional, patriarchal kind of place, where age-based hierarchies govern most interactions. Kim Yo-jong being young and female would make it harder for her to win the deference of North Korea’s elite.

Yet in North Korea’s upper ranks, what matters most is the family ties, and Kim Yo-jong would likely derive a huge part of her legitimacy, if not all of it, from those blood ties.

While South Korea’s intelligence agency has reported that Kim Jong Un has three children, North Korea has never confirmed those reports. Even if they are true, none of Kim’s offspring would be nearly old enough to run the country.

So what would North Korea look like without Kim Jong-un at the helm? Unfortunately for the 25 million citizens of the country, it would probably look much like it does now – a hermit kingdom where most people outside of a wealthy elite live in poverty and lack civil rights.

It is tempting to personalise the politics of states like North Korea, to assume that individual leaders guide the country, that with different leadership would come broad-based change.

This is rarely the case, particularly in a system as sclerotic as North Korea’s.

News that Kim Jong-un could be in danger creates opportunities to imagine a different North Korea, perhaps a place where no one starves and the government cares more about ensuring the population’s well-being.

Sadly, even if Kim were gone, there is no reason to expect that.