As stories continue to bubble to the surface regarding the health and potential demise of North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, social media has already taken to making memes about the leader of the reclusive state, celebrating the death of a man many see as a modern day tyrannical despot.
To be clear, I’ve spent years covering North Korea (and some other modern despots) in the defense news-sphere, and while I could happily provide a long list of Kim’s failings as a leader and a human being, I can’t help but feel as though we, as a people, should be careful what we wish for.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that you should lose any sleep over the potential death of a tyrant… but it’s important to consider the ways Kim Jong Un’s death could affect the Korean Peninsula, North Korea’s relations with the United States, and the future of the region as a whole.
Kim Jong Un has proven to be a cunning tyrant
While it fashionable to dismiss the acts of evil doers as inherently evil and therefore wrong, the truth is, as former Secretary of Defense and legendary Marine general James Mattis once put it, America has no preordained right to victory on the battlefield. In other words, simply coloring this conflict in shades of black and white, good guys and bad guys, doesn’t do a whole lot of good from a strategic standpoint. From the vantage point of many within North Korea and its government, they are the good guys, and America is the “imperial bully” responsible for their misfortune.
While we in America often chuckle at North Korea’s ham fisted military propaganda, Kim has proven in the years since he took power in 2011 that, despite his nation’s ailing economy and reclusive foreign policy, he’s capable of accomplishing quite a bit with his limited resources.
While it’s all but certain that North Korea’s population is suffering under Kim’s decision to continue his pursuit of nuclear weapons even under a myriad of international economic sanctions, many mistake Kim’s nuclear efforts for nuclear intent. The truth is, it seems clear the Kim Jong Un does not want to develop nuclear weapons to use them, he wants a nuclear arsenal so other nations are forced to engage with him.
As a non-nuclear state with minimal conventional military power, it was only through the development of nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles that can carry them to far away targets that Kim was able to secure a meeting with the President of the United States and commence talks that could lead to lifting North Korean sanctions.
Kim’s nukes are about leverage, not war
As a nuclear power, Kim Jong Un has enjoyed more positive exposure from an American president in recent years than either of his predecessors managed. Some may contend that Trump tends to buddy up with tyrants like Kim, but once North Korea’s tests demonstrated that they were rapidly positioning themselves to be capable of launching nuclear strikes on the American mainland, there’s little a U.S. president can do outside of opening negotiations. The only alternative, at that point, would have been kinetic intervention (military action), as sanctions alone have proven insufficient to deter North Korea’s nuclear program.
Kim has not ordered another test since sparse talks with Trump commenced, which can be credited to open diplomatic channels between the Trump administration and North Korea, but in a number of ways, it may also benefit North Korea to put these tests on hold.
Previous tests showed that while North Korea may be able to reach American shores with missiles, they still seemed to be struggling with the survivability of their nuclear re-entry vehicle. They have also failed to demonstrate how effective their targeting apparatus is at such long ranges. In other words, North Korea may not be as nuclear capable as they are perceived to be by many around the world… and Kim likely wants to keep perceptions right where they are. Continued tests increase the opportunity for malfunction, and a loss of some of the credibility his government has gained.
Let there be no mistake, a nuclear North Korea is bad for everyone, but in Kim’s hands thus far, his nuclear weapons have appeared to be a means to gain leverage, rather than a means to initiate war.
There seems to be no clear line of succession
While many may want to celebrate the potential passing of Kim Jong Un, it remains unclear exactly who would take the lead of the reclusive state upon his death. Many contend that Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, would be next in line for Supreme Leader, which would mark the first female leader in modern North Korean history. Questions remain about whether the North Korean system would readily accept a female leader, as well as what damage the premature death of Kim Jong Un could do to the popular North Korean sentiments about the near-deity role of their supreme leader.
While Kim Jong Un is a bad guy, he’s a fairly stable one with a firm grip on the North Korean populace. If questions arose regarding who is supposed to be in charge, North Korea runs the very real risk of seeing entire facets of its system collapse under competing claims over the role of Supreme Leader… and that would be bad news for just about everyone on the planet.
A nuclear arsenal with new hands on the button
If Kim Jong Un passes away, the United States will be faced with the daunting challenge of re-initiating nuclear talks with a person that is far less predictable, at least early on, than Kim–who has served as the “devil you know” for nearly a decade. A new leader may not share Kim’s sense of self-preservation when it comes to nuclear war, and may choose aggression over Kim’s theatrics. While we tend to scoff at many of North Korea’s efforts to garner attention on the world stage, the truth is, those efforts are in many ways better than taking overt and aggressive action that could lead to bloody war.
A more aggressive leader may push harder for an end to sanctions by using the threat of nuclear attack–which in all likelihood would end in war, rather than an end to said sanctions… but even that would be a better alternative than a breakdown of the North Korean system altogether.
There are many lingering questions about North Korea’s nuclear chain of command, but in the event North Korea finds itself with multiple potential leaders jockeying for position — the person with their hand on the nuclear button will almost certainly gain a significant leg up. Worse still, if civil conflict breaks out, the chance of nuclear launch or even losing nuclear weapons entirely as they’re sold to nefarious third parties becomes a very real possibility.
A nuclear North Korea is bad, but North Korean nukes falling into the hands of an extremist organization that aims to attack the United States would be worse.
A refugee crises in the making
Unrest in North Korea, prompted in part by the diminishing standard of living many of North Korea’s citizens have experienced under Kim’s rule, could result in an absolutely massive refugee crises on both South Korean and Chinese borders.
In 2017, a North Korean soldier named Oh Chong-Song defected by fleeing across the heavily guarded demilitarized zone between North and South Korea. North Korean soldiers opened fire on Oh, ultimately hitting him five times. He was soon rescued by South Korean troops who airlifted him to a nearby hospital, where he underwent lifesaving surgery.
The results of that surgery, however, also gave us important insights into the conditions within the reclusive state. Because of the high profile troops stationed on the border receive, North Korea tends to provide them with the best of supplies and resources. Oh was found to have little more than hardened corn kernels in his stomach, alongside large parasitic worms. If Oh’s condition was better than many within North Korea, it stands to reason that many inside Kim’s nation are truly desperate, and currently held at bay by the nation’s strict governmental rule.
If that rule were to waiver, or the system were to become unstable, many North Koreans could see that as the opportunity they need to seek a better life elsewhere, prompting millions to pour over the borders into neighboring states. Such a refugee crises would put nations like China and South Korea under incredible strain. As such, China, who can be seen as North Korea’s closest ally of sorts, is already invested in securing the stability of the nation by sending doctors to assist with whatever is going on with Kim Jong Un.
The devil you know
There is no debate about whether Kim Jong Un is a villain from the vantage point of the Western world, but the devil you know offers some advantages over one you don’t. Kim Jong Un may be a despot, but in many ways, he’s a fairly predictable one. A new leader could make things better, but losing Kim could potentially make things much worse… provided a more aggressive leader were to take his place or worse still, no clear leader emerges.
In many ways, preventing war with North Korea is a balancing act… and while few may weep for Kim if is dead, it’s hard to say if a North Korea without Kim will tip toward a better future, a worse future, or no future at all.