Armored troops of the Korean People's Army on parade. The country's current bluster masks real weaknesses. Photo: AFP

North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, 36, is reviled in some quarters as a dictator – but reports of a health emergency are raising specters of even greater evils.

Although spotlights are now focused on his younger sister, with no succession plan for the young leader apparent, the possibility of a leadership vacuum and regime instability in the nuclear-armed state is significant.

Yet even if North Korea descended into chaos, it is unlikely that South Korea, the US or even China would dare to launch an intervention into the heavily fortified, highly militarized and ultra-nationalistic state.

Truth or dare?

Following a Monday report in specialist media Daily NK, which maintains undercover sources inside North Korea, that Kim had undergone cardiovascular surgery, CNN, citing a US official, reported yesterday that Kim is facing a grave situation. Bloomberg followed up with similar information.

That set rumor mills spinning furiously. Beijing and Seoul have attempted to downplay the reports – but Kim remains invisible and experts say matters look fishy.

“Something is definitely happening,” Andrei Lankov, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Kukmin University told Asia Times. “There are rumors from various sources, but most importantly, Kim disappeared when he was supposed to be noticeable. That is strange.”

After overseeing multiple missile tests in March, Kim did not appear at a launch on April 14. More startlingly, he failed to celebrate the birthday of his late grandfather, “Eternal President” Kim Il Sung, on April 15 – a key date in North Korea’s calendar.

Joseph Yun, a former US envoy to North Korea under presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump, told Reuters “something really is quite amiss, quite awry right now in North Korea.”

Boosting the credibility of reports are Kim’s genes, physique and lifestyle. His grandfather and father both died of heart problems; Kim’s obesity is unmistakable; and his heavy smoking is well known.

“This is a wake-up call,” said Daniel Pinkston, a strategy expert at Troy University. “Even if he proves to be OK, he is not immortal; a year, or five or ten years down the line, this could come up again.”

Family or system?

According to Daily NK, Kim, underwent surgery on April 12. The day prior, his younger sister, Kim Yo Jong, 31, whose background is in state propaganda, was promoted to the Politbureau. Could that move indicate a succession contingency?

Yo Jong was a prominent member of her brother’s entourage in 2018, when the latter exited global isolation. She charmed South Korean officials – including President Moon Jae-in – on Winter Olympics-related business in that country, and appeared on the sidelines of two summits with Donald Trump. All this suggests she is someone the wider world could do business with.

She is believed to have given birth in 2018 and dropped from public view after the implosion of the 2019 Hanoi summit.  Now, her profile has risen again – but whether she is a viable alternate leader is questionable.

In North Korea’s militaristic, male-dominated elite, Yo Jong’s gender and youth play against her. “She is young, and a woman,” said Pinkston. “Traditionally in those types of systems – Neo-Confucian, communist, Korean traditionalist – I am skeptical.”

Alternatively, Yo Jong’s gender might offer her brother some comfort. “If you start a succession plan, you are essentially giving away some power,” said Go Myong-hyun, a North Korea watcher at the Asan Institute. “She is a woman so maybe he feels comfortable sharing power with her.”

However, her official rank is low. “She is, in spite of her prominence, a very junior member of the elite,” said Lankov. “She is about number 25 from, say, number 100, in their power hierarchy.”

And though Pyongyang’s entrenched leadership system features strong monarchical aspects, Lankov warned against over-emphasizing bloodline. 

“The next leader has to be officially announced and spends some time being shown around the elite and shown to the general public, but she has been presented as just one of many officials,” he said. “Many over-estimate the royal blood’s significance, but it is not enough unless proper preparation and groundwork has been done.” 

Still, Yo Jong appears better positioned than older brother, Jong Chul, 38. He has shown no interest in politics: His only famous appearance was at a 2015 Eric Clapton concert in London. Their elder half-brother, Jong Nam, was assassinated with nerve gas in Malaysia in 2017.

Daggers drawn

Go suggested that either Yo Jong or Jong Chul could become a symbolic leader with more senior – and perhaps more hardline – figures pulling the strings. “The dynastic line is the only source of legitimacy,” he said. “And the first instinct or preference of the North Korea elite is stability and continuity.”

Absent that, the possibility of factionalism and potentially violent instability in North Korea if Jong Un dies or is incapacitated rises.

“As far as maintaining dictatorships go – with guns and money and competing institutions – it is set up for the leader to control it,” Pinkston said. “Those types of systems, those centralized dictatorships, tend to rely upon close family members – Hussein, Gaddafi, Kim.”

While Pinkston noted that Yo Jong would be “one of a handful of people with the keys to those channels,” she would need to be a sharp operator to navigate Pyongyang’s corridors of power – spaces long overshadowed by prison camps, exile, assassination and execution.  

“A power struggle would be a question of who draws the six-shooter first, and who has the six-shooter,” said Lankov. “What is important is who will secure support and power and neutralize challengers – which usually means physically destroy them.”

It is unlikely, on past form, that North Korea would broadcast news of its leader’s ill health. However, a power struggle would be trickier to cover up. Signals would be increased internal control, likely with troops on streets, and units being deployed to secure borders against possible external intervention, Lankov said. No such signs are visible.

Colossal risk

North Korea bestrides the crossroads of Northeast Asia and possesses nuclear arms. If instability – infighting, warlordism, refugee flows and/or civil war – did grip the country, outside intervention could be mooted. Moreover, many in the West might like to see North Korea disappear, and the peninsula unite under Seoul.

“If there were an opportunity and the risks were low and you could establish order and reunify Korea – what South Korean president would not do that?”asked Pinkston. “Think East Germany when West Germany thought, ‘The timing is right.”

Risks, however, are stratospheric.

“Nobody likes somebody coming into their house uninvited,” retired South Korea general Chun In-bum told Asia Times. “And the North Koreas are, by temperament, a ferocious people.”

While the US has engaged in countless conflicts worldwide since 1945, public appetite in the post-Iraq War era for possible moves against such a well-armed and fiercely motivated enemy may be minimal.

And while South Korea might be the biggest beneficiary of intervention, Chun warned against it.

“There are contingency plans where the [South Korea-US] alliance would intervene to stabilize the situation – but they are strictly for planning purposes only,” Chun, who formerly led Seoul’s Special Warfare Command, said. “It is like a meteor striking the world – what are you going to do? The chances are one in a million, but you should think about it.”

A more likely alliance military effort would be to secure borders and to input, screen and care for refugees, Chun said.

If Washington and Seoul quailed, could Beijing buttress the stability of its strategic northeastern flank by rolling over the border?

Dragon move

Soviet interventions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia provide potential models. Beijing fought in the Korean War, engaged in border conflicts with India and Vietnam, skirmished with Taiwan and the USSR, and is currently operating aggressively in the South China Sea.

But even with Xi Jinping’s China flexing more expeditionary muscle than ever, experts doubt it.

“If the Chinese tried to swallow North Korea, it would be like swallowing poison,” said Chun. “The Chinese would be fighting door to door – mountain to mountain.”

Hence, any Chinese initiative would be non-kinetic.

“Instead of shaping the environment, China will be observing, responding and trying to shape the situational flow so is conducive to Chinese national interest,” said Lee Seong-hyon, a China expert at South Korean think tank the Sejong Institute. “I think China would use international bodies – a UN emergency panel, peacekeeping operations or an ad hoc committee.”

The issue of potential interventions is so sensitive in China, officials and academics fear even to discuss it. “Washington and Seoul have been trying to talk with Beijing about this, but a senior US official told me that there was no single official dialog – just scholarly conferences,” he said.

Lee suggested that Beijing would accept any leader who wielded power authoritatively.

““China did not respect Kim Jong Un, but after he executed [uncle and senior official] Jang Song-taek in 2013, China realized they had underestimated him: He called the shots!” Lee said. “China wants stability. This is China’s DNA when it comes to North Korea’s ‘Game of Thrones.’”

Others agree that stability is the best possible outcome. Citing the carnage that filled leadership vacuums after regime changes in the Middle East, Chun mused: “A good dictator is better than a bad dictator – and a bad dictator is better than no dictator.”