Editor’s Note: This is part of a symposium asking what happens if Kim Jong-un died. To read the other parts of the series click here.
If Kim Jong-un died suddenly no one would be prepared, not the United States, South Korea, China nor North Korea.
Historically, the situation would be unprecedented in the 72-year history of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and such uncertainty in a nuclear-armed state would be unprecedented in world history.
Speculation would immediately run wild. Will there be a violent, destabilizing power struggle inside North Korea? A popular uprising? Would China try to intervene to secure weapons and put a pliant leadership in place? Or, as some South Koreans fear, make North Korea “the fourth province of Manchuria”? Would South Korea intervene, taking advantage of the opportunity to reunify the peninsula?
While these fears are understandable, the history of the North Korean regime has been one of remarkable continuity. The same small elite of guerilla comrades and relatives of Kim Il Sung has held almost complete control for three generations. The last time they were challenged was in 1956. There have been purges and jostling for power, yet the same families dominate the Party, the bureaucracy, and military, often with a family member in each. And it is hard to imagine a popular uprising in the DPRK. The regime has been highly successful in preventing public displays of opposition of any kind. There may be an internal power struggle within the elite, but they all have an interest in keeping the system functioning.
No matter who assumes real power, the ruling families and their patronage networks will rally around a new member of the Kim clan, Kim Yo-jong, Kim Pyong-il or whoever, at least in public. There may be an effort in Pyongyang to create an external crisis to divert attention from internal problems or to strengthen the hands of those consolidating power. But periodic external crises for internal reasons have been a pattern for many decades. There will be no chaos.
Nor is it likely that Beijing would intervene in a heavy-handed way. The North Korean elite share a distrust of China, and Beijing has not shown any taste for risky adventurism. South Korea and its U.S. and Japanese allies will watch nervously, but it is hard to imagine they would do more than that. Why risk a nuclear war, especially when it is not clear what the outcome in the North will be? The most likely immediate impact would be anxiety on all sides, but the regime would hold for a while and the geopolitical situation would remain substantially unaltered.
In the long-run the trajectory of the regime might be uncertain, however, it is unlikely there would be any radical changes in the short-run.
Michael J. Seth is a Professor at James Madison University.