After Kim Jong Un
It Is Time to Plan for North Korea’s Inevitable Succession Crisis
May 18, 2020Last month’s media frenzy over the health and possible death of the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un seemed in many respects like an indulgent diversion. During the nearly three-week period, starting on April 11, when Kim did not appear in public, international media outlets amplified thinly sourced reports suggesting that he might be in “grave danger” or even dead following a rumored cardiovascular procedure gone wrong. Satirical memes under the hashtag #KIMJONGUNDEAD, one of which depicted the leader as a pickle in a “vegetative state,” took social media by storm. Kim’s May 1 reappearance, alive and seemingly well at a ceremony marking the opening of a fertilizer factory, exposed the news reports as overblown.
Beneath the surface of unseriousness, however, lay an important reminder that this nuclear-armed state could easily face a leadership crisis. In that event, outside powers could clash in an attempt to secure weapons of mass destruction or prevent refugee outflows.
Kim’s brief disappearance has underscored the urgent need for the United States to adopt a regional security strategy for North Korea—one that coordinates the responses of the interested powers to the potential instability of the regime in Pyongyang.