Imagining North Korea Without Kim Jong Un

by Vrinda Jain

Imagining North Korea Without Kim Jong Un

January 12, 2021

In 1948, Kim Il Sung started the Mount Paektu bloodline in North Korea. That led to the birth of the country's current supreme leader— Kim Jong Un. Since 2011, when Kim Jong Un came into power, North Korea has risen as one of the most unstable nations to have nuclear prowess.

North Korea is regarded by the United States and its Asian allies as a ‘severe security threat’. It has one of the largest conventional armed forces globally and a nuclear arsenal consistent of ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads that furthers the provocative global discourse.

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In this photo provided by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un speaks at the ruling party congress in Pyongyang, North Korean, Friday, Jan. 8, 2021. Kim threatened to expand his nuclear arsenal and develop more sophisticated weapons systems, saying the fate of relations with the United States depends on whether it abandons its hostile policy, state media reported Saturday.Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service via AP

North Korea- A Global Threat to Peace

Despite the worldwide upheaval arising from the North Korean threat, world powers have been unsuccessful in slowing down the hermit kingdom’s atomic arms acquisition path. Although it remains among the world’s poorest countries, North Korea, according to the US State Department estimates, spends almost a quarter of its gross domestic product (GDP) on its military.

In April 2020, when Kim Jong Un was confirmed to have undergone cardiovascular surgery due to a health disorder purportedly from excessive smoking, obesity, and overwork. A frenzy broke out in North Korea’s capital Pyongyang when the leader did not attend his grandfather Kim Il Sung’s birthday and missed the annual parade celebrating the armed forces’ founding.

Rumours and Grapevines

Many assumed that Kim was dead and that his sister or uncle would be the next North Korean supreme. A few days after the rumours about his death, the supreme leader made an unlikely yet highly anticipated public appearance to inaugurate a fertiliser plant in Sunchon on May 2. This put a rest to the whispers of Kim’s death and about his sister or uncle replacing him as the premier.

Speculation about the Kim dynasty’s inner workings is a favourite pastime for North Korean close-watchers due to the tightly monitored data. Many have also made gamblings about Kim’s appearance in May 2020, calling it a body double and making comparisons with his earlier photographs and videos.

Did Kim Die?

Conspiracies and the rumours started growing around Kim’s body double, when he was seen in May, cutting the red ribbon at the Sunchon fertiliser plant. Like Joseph Stalin and Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Un is also rumoured to have a double body— a doppelgänger can stand in his place when required.

British Daily Mail also picked up this rumour, as it argued that Kim used a body double at the ceremony. It posted multiple photos on the internet of the 36-year-old leader doing the rounds to explain how different his facial features looked.

Even Jennifer Zeng, a human rights activist and a political refugee, tweeted Kim’s earlier images as she brought out notable comparisons between his ears, hair, and teeth. Many people on Twitter wrote about Kim using a body double and calling it “not the same person”. This one incident further sparked light on other controversies that surround the supreme leader.

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In this Friday, May 1, 2020, photo provided by the North Korean government, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center, visits a fertilizer factory in Sunchon, South Pyongan province, near Pyongyang.

Counter Intelligence Fans Conspiracies

One such hypothesis was when everyone in the crowd wore a mask for Kim’s appearance on May 2, counter to the assertion that North Korea is coronavirus-free. Kim Jong-un might have contracted the virus and was under care, according to Aljazeera. Some also believe that Kim underwent plastic surgery that made him look different in the pictures.

In the photos that surfaced from the fertiliser plant’s inauguration, Kim was also cheerfully interacting with the ministers. Usually, Kim does not interact with the fellow ministers to maintain his position as the supreme leader and the air of terrifying authority.

While these controversies are not confirmed, they sure raise the question— what will happen in North Korea if Kim Jong Un actually dies?

North Korea Without Kim Jong Un

It is a tricky affair to foresee what could happen in a post-Kim North Korea. Analysts have often misplaced Pyongyang for clear and understandable causes. And in this case, the typical theoretical difficulties are exacerbated by the fact that since its establishment in 1948, the relatively young North Korean nation has experienced only two changes in leadership.

Literally or figuratively, a data collection of two does not inspire much confidence.

It poses a significant threat to the regime if Kim dies or is even incapacitated. North Korean government’s genetic structure suggests that its internal stability relies heavily on a new leader’s smooth succession, which presumably means one of Kim’s family members (either his sister or uncle).

Past Can't Be Relied Upon For Futuristic Predictions

The North Korean government has survived for more than seven decades of autocratic rule, despite the many droughts, economic crises, international sanctions and foreign trade controls, and only two transitions of power. However, this past endurance tells us nothing about the future, since rapid and sometimes unforeseen failures are a common feature of authoritarian family dictatorships.

In the event of a collapse in the North, the United States and South Korea will face several difficulties. The highest priority will be to protect and displace the nuclear arsenal that the young Kim has built. The prevention of the transfer of materials, arms and know-how beyond the peninsula to new actors is a crucial part of the strategy to fight North Korean mass destruction weapons.

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American soldiers in antichemical suits demonstrated their equipment near a mock bomb north of Seoul.

The Trifecta of North Korea, the US, and China

The US is also likely to restrict North Korea’s movement for preventing nuclear materials from getting into the wrong hands of the terrorist in the area. One major problem is that the role of Chinese forces in a crash contingency is not sufficiently accounted for by US contingency planning. The conventional wisdom is that Chinese involvement will be limited to dealing with refugees along its borders, and actions will favour North Korea.

If a major war broke out on the Korean Peninsula, China would likely pursue comprehensive military action with an eye on expanding regional control. Latest Chinese statements and drills for military training also point to increased intervention preparations.

Moreover, due to China’s geographical proximity to North Korea and the likelihood that North Korean troops will show relatively low resistance to Chinese forces, the Chinese military might enter North Korean nuclear facilities faster than US or South Korean troops. China can also enjoy early notice, allowing for advanced training, since the shared border offers unique intelligence gathering opportunities for China.

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Hoax images claiming death of Kim Jong Un go viral | (Photo Credits: Twitter/@Magnnatte)

Geo-political Militaristic Might

Some analysts think that when Kim’s rule ends, China will also intervene to install a new leader of its liking. Although, considering the deep-rooted mistrust that has shadowed the coalition of countries, some are dubious about North’s ability to do so.

Decades of intense nationalistic indoctrination have made North Koreans, suspicious of any interference by outsiders. The control of people by a police state has been such that a civil uprising in the North is all but unimaginable. But if that power were to loosen up during an uncertain transition period, demonstrations might erupt over lengthy resentments against official corruption and economic hardship.

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