Unanswered Questions about North Korean Leadership
Victor Cha: Good morning, everyone, good afternoon, good evening, depending on where you are. And welcome to this virtual event by CSIS Korea Chair. My name is Victor Cha. I’m senior vice president for Asia and Korea Chair at CSIS, vice dean and professor at Georgetown. And we’re joined this morning by four terrific experts to talk about North Korea, and in particular questions about the leadership with regard to North Korea. These days, most of the conversations about North Korea are about their nuclear and missile program, for very good reasons. But today, we’re really going to focus more on the leadership and what we think is going on with regard to the leadership.
We’ve seen in recent weeks and months the unveiling – and years – the unveiling of, first, the wife, and then the younger sister, and now the daughter. There are also many unanswered questions about Kim Jong-un’s health. And so we want to have a conversation about those things. This particular event is part of a three-part series that we have been doing called Tipping Points, looking at potential tipping points when it comes to North Korea. The first of these looked at the health situation in North Korea, given the COVID lockdown, where we had health experts and folks from different NGOs who joined us. The second of these was on the missile program. And then this is the third and last of these, on the whole question of leadership.
And so we’re really looking forward to this conversation. And we have a great group of speakers to join us this morning. You can see them on your – I think you can see them all on your screen. John Delury, Bruce Klingner, Sue Terry, and Soo Kim. I’m not going to go through the sort of traditional elaborate introductions for each of you, in large part because I don’t have your bios in front of me – (laughs) – so I can’t – so I can’t do that this morning. But I see that all of us are Zooming in from what looks like our libraries and our offices and our – and dining rooms, and things. So it’s good to have you all – good to have you all with us.
So I guess, to start us off, you know, I think the first overall question I’d like to get your views on is sort of your assessment of where Kim Jong-un is in terms of his place in the system– your assessment of sort of the control he has over the system. I guess the latest news that we’ve all see are these rumors coming out of Japan that the former foreign minister has been purged, possibly even executed. I think he first appeared in a Yomiuri Shimbun story, you know, Japanese stories on North Korea, they’re always quite interesting. You’re always curious about the sourcing. But we also know that there – you know, there are different sources in Japan than there are in South Korea, and China, and other places.
So love to get your thoughts on that initially – overall assessment of how he’s doing, the sort of control he has over the party, the military. Is this where we expected him to be when he started? And then, what do you think is going on with these stories, to the extent you give them any credence, what you think is going on with regard to these stories about Ri Yong-ho. So I don’t think we have a particular order, so let me just start with – let me ask Sue Terry to start us off.
Sue Mi Terry: Did you – I mean, should we spend some minutes talking about – you were also asking in your sort of – in your email to us about Kim Yo-jong and where we are with the succession question. Should we also talk about that, or should I just answer your –
Dr. Cha: So I was going to – that was going to be my next question. So –
Dr. Terry: Oh, ok, so let’s talk about this first part of the question.
Dr. Cha: First part of it, and also what you think is going on with Ri Yong-ho, to the extent –
Dr. Terry: Yeah, well, of course, who knows? (Laughs.) But, ok, so let me just talk about at least, you know, his – whether Kim – where Kim is, and whether he has consolidated leadership or whatnot.
But before I answer that question, I just wanted to share this thought. And Soo Kim knows this, and we were at the agency together and I’m her seonbae – much, much older. I think Bruce is my seonbae, although we never really overlapped at the agency. But, you know, we cover – obviously, the intelligence community – covers these issues when we talk about where North Korea – you know, we are following North Korean issues. We include issues like this, these kind of internal issues. It’s very, very important.
But way back then, when I was covering North Korea, it was all about – you know, obviously, it was the Kim Jong-il days. And there was this – always this question always among Korea watchers about these various hardliners versus moderates, and whether or how Kim – you know, whether Kim is being influenced by hardliners, who controlled who, and this kind of question over whether the leader really has control over the regime. So it’s always kind of this perennial question that’s always been out there and people discuss it.
I think at the end, at least during the Kim Jong-il era, there was no question that he certainly did after – you know, consolidated power after the initial years. Consolidated power, and he had very firm control over the leadership. So this kind of just reminds me again, when we’re talking about questioning about Kim Jong-un, about where he is. You know, and I do think there’s no question – I mean, I don’t know, I’d be curious to hear other people’s thoughts on this – but Kim Jong-un has consolidated power, right? He has built up this, you know, impressive nuclear and missile arsenal. And to me, he really comes across as more confident than ever, you know, when I see the pictures coming out of North Korea.
And I think – I think it’s a surprise. You, Victor, you just asked, like, did we expect this? I think we have to say this is a surprise to many of us, when we’re just looking over the decade, when he first initially came into power. I think it is surprising that – to see how deftly he handled his decade-plus in power. In part, you know, through reshuffling of party and military structures. And of course, it took some brutal periodic purging of the leadership, right, from execution of Jang Song-thaek in 2013 and then this minister of defense Hyon Yong-chol in 2015.
Of course, assassination of Kim Jong-nam in 2017 and then replacing all the top military generals: the chief of the military general staff, Ri Myong Su; the defense chief, Pak Yong-sik; you know, the director of military’s political bureau, Kim Jong-gak, or in 2018, and so on, on and on. Like, I actually lost count. Replacing people with – who are – with people who are directly – is going to be loyal to Kim Jong-un, right, while removing all the confidants of his father and really tightening the party’s hold on the military.
And you know, whether this former foreign minister – you know, it’s really – whether he’s now gone, it’s hard to say. You know, again, it comes to source. Many of the sources are wildly wrong. You know, remember when Jang Song-thaek was assassinated and he’s, like, oh, pack of dogs ate him? I mean, so it’s really hard to say. But if – I just gave you a list of people who got – you know, who got replaced/assassinated/purged, so it would also be not surprising at all if he’s also a goner for whatever reason. So I would just say, I would not be surprised either way, just because purging has been one of the ways that Kim Jong-un did consolidate power, in addition to other things that he did, I think that was pretty smart.
Remember, you know, when – in the early years when he came into power, he was drawing on nostalgia of the public – the North Korean public had of his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, and his grandiose and charismatic persona. Dressing like him, looking like his grandfather. Remember, we were all talking about, like, did he even get a plastic surgeon to look like him? That was a rumor. And then, you know, he did things – he did things to show that he wanted to be seen as a modern leader of a modern North Korea, which is the topic of our colleague Jung Pak’s book. So I do say, to answer your initial question, that I think he is very much in control today. And I just listed how he consolidate power – his decade in power.
Dr. Cha: Thanks very much, Sue.
Can I now go to your hoobae, Soo Kim, to offer her initial thoughts on this?
Soo Kim: Sure. So I agree with Sue in that I do think that he’s made remarkable progress in just a short span of time. I think that we sort of expect him to falter because the length of time that he basically prepare to become the leader and to become the dictator was much shorter than what his father had. And it was also much shorter for the public to accept Kim Jong-un as a successor. So I think there’s a bit of a doubt that we also, I think, place on Kim Jong-un in saying, you know, perhaps this is not what we’re actually seeing.
I will also say that I do think that he’s pretty confident in the way that he demonstrates his leadership. But I think with that confidence also comes extreme insecurity that he has to mask with the confidence. And that comes in the form of executions, purges, public displays of grandeur, where he does not want either the North Korean public or the international audience to suspect that he is faltering. And, I mean, this might be a comical image, but I just picture Kim Jong-un falling asleep at night and being terrified that he’s not exactly the – you know, to borrow the North Korean name of his daughter, “the most beloved” – he’s not the most beloved. He’s probably, like, the most despised or the most resented.
And that comes with a heavy burden and heavy baggage, I think, of having to clean house once in a while to make sure that all of the officials that are surrounding him are not only loyal, but that they will fear consequences if and when they do, perhaps, have any inkling or desire to – not just upset the balance in the regime, but to even question and to cast doubts about his leadership and the ability of Kim Jong-un to lead the country. And I think that’s where a lot of our doubts come.
But overall, I mean, take a look at last year where we saw a record number of missiles being conducted. I think in November was when we saw this huge spike in the tests, where there was one day where he conducted I think over 20-something – he launched like 20-something missiles in one day. And that, one, is obviously a very costly thing for him to do, but it’s also very bold. And I think he’s also marching through with this plan, whether it’s the weapons program or in dealing with the United States or South Korea.
For someone who is, I would say, 20-30 years younger than many of the leaders that he’s dealing with, he seems to read their fears and not just their assessment of North Korea pretty well. But he understands, I think, the costs and the benefits that they will also have to consider if and when he does actually provoke, with a nuclear test or something that is going to create a lot of interest and a lot of reaction. And he knows, I think, that if he were to conduct that seventh nuclear test, there will be retaliation, there will be responses.
But he’s probably thinking that Biden, or Yoon, or some other leader also has to think about their risks in terms of responding to Kim Jong-un, and also thinking about the consequences it would have on their leadership, their political strength. And I think we also have to take into consideration economics as well in this day and age. And so I think that the confidence is surely there, but that confidence is – it’s buttressed and it’s sustained by internal fear that I think it’s expected for a dictator that’s not liked. And people just have to live with the fact that they’re being ruled under Kim Jong-un.
So there’s a lot of insecurity, but that insecurity I think is portrayed in this very ruthless and overpowering manner that, now I think we’re not taking him as this buffoonish leader, but we are taking him seriously. And we’re seeing that in the way that we tend to be more, I think, reserved and more cautious in the way that we respond to Kim Jong-un.
Dr. Cha: Great. Thanks. Thanks, Soo.
I want to go to the seonbae, Bruce, and start off also where Soo left off at this point. I mean, does the – does the outside world look at Kim Jong-un as a buffoonish leader, or has that really – has that really changed? I mean, you know, we used – the West used to ridicule these leaders, but, you know, is that still the assessment today? And then also your thoughts on this question of control – internal control.
Bruce Klingner: Well, first of all, Victor, I’d give you a lengthy thank you, but I don’t your bio in front of me so I’ll just give you a simple thanks – thanks for having me. (Laughter.) I’m going to be kind of the curmudgeon-y outlier here and say that while succession and regime stability and leadership control are important, you know, really we don’t know, you know, what’s going to happen tomorrow. So right now we have a leader in power. That’s the one we have to deal with. There are no indications of, you know, he’s going to kick the bucket or someone’s going to give him a 9mm headache, and stuff. So, you know, in essence we should be focused, I think, on the – you know, the very large, scary, multi warhead ICBM, rather than the little girl in front of is. So as you try to figure out how to cut me off and wonder why you invited me, let me keep going, though.
On leadership, I mean, I remember, you know, a month after Kim took power debating folks, you know, who were saying, you know, North Korea’s going to collapse, no one can possibly follow this kid. And I was saying, this system’s going to work. You know, had Kim Jong-il died in August 2008 when he had the stroke, who knows what would have happened. There really was, I don’t think, a very lengthy process put into place by that time. You know, there was nothing in the constitution, and there still isn’t in the constitution, about succession. You know, it could have been a scramble for the ring of power.
But there was three years subsequent to that where Kim was able to, you know, put in place Kim Jong-un, and then remove anyone who was against it. So by the time Jong-un took power, I was thinking, you know, it’s going to take – it’s going to be successful. The system will perpetuate itself. And within six months, he had gotten six very important titles, which gave him absolute control of the party, and the state, and the military. So and we didn’t have any indications that there was any resistance to his rule or to the succession in the first six months, which would have been when he was most vulnerable.
So we didn’t see any talk of a collective leadership. We didn’t see any talks of coups or, you know, challengers. So I think he’s been in control very firmly really right from the get-go. And now he’s been in power longer than any of the other leaders, really, in the world. So he’s not the little kid trying to figure out, you know, where the restrooms are in the presidential palace. So, you know, I think, you know, he is in control. We don’t see any challenges to him.
And, you know, when we talk about the removal of – sometimes permanently – of officials, well, the same was happening under Kim Jong-il. None of it indicated a change in policy. And even during the succession, it’s – when some would say, oh, Kim Jong-un was this Swiss-educated reformer. He’s going to be so different. Well, not so much. You know, he’s at brutal, if not more brutal, than his predecessors.
So I think he’s firmly in control. And when we see people being purged – and sometimes they’re resurrected and they come back after reports of them being executed – you know, I think it just shows that he’s – or, he’s already consolidated his power, and he’s just removing those that either displeased him or that he perceives could be a threat. But I don’t think anyone is really willing to stick their head above the parapet now to challenge him.
You know, and Sue brought up the point about the old debates we used to have of reformers versus hardliners. You know, and it tended to be, you know, those who were very much in favor of engagement would say that there were these factions that, you know, at one point the hardliners had control of poor little Kim Jong-il, and therefore what we needed to do was offer concessions and offer to show that there was benefits to engaging. And then when Kim was acting nicely, then people would say, well, that shows the reformers have control over Jong-il, and therefore we should offer concessions in order to strengthen those.
You know, we knew that he was firmly in control and he simply decided which message to send on which day. And if it was a hardline message, he’d send it through the ministry of defense. If it was a softline message he’d send it through the ministry of foreign affairs. But he was the one calling the shots. So I think the same is true with Kim Jong-un, that, you know, he is in control. And then if we see officials being moved or not, it could be a signal of displeasure with certain policies, you know, or it could be just something behind the scenes.
So, you know, when it comes to kind of Kim’s health or the succession, you know, a lot of times we just kind of give what we used to call the CIA salute of, like, well, we don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes. But you just sort of have to deal with the leader that’s in front of the curtain now, and his policies, and how you try to respond to them.
Dr. Cha: So I want to go to – we’ve gone from hoobae to seonbae and then we’re going to go to gyosunim in a second. (Laughter.) But it’s interesting, because the point that you made – and, John, and you can address this as well – that these debates that happen with every leadership – well, with the last two leadership transitions in North Korea, about enlightened leader versus, you know, more of the same, that part of it had less to do, from what you said, Bruce, it sounds to me, had less to do with assumptions about the leadership than it had to do about – with assumptions about what was happening underneath and around the leadership.
In the sense that people who said maybe he’s a reformer, part of that had to do with the notion that there were, like, as you said, factions within the North Korean leadership who were hardliner or reforming. And therefore, through engagement you had to give more – you had to give more support to the reformer factions so that they can gain control in North Korea. Does anybody believe that anymore? Does anybody – like, is there anybody in the IC or in the policy community, or in academia for that matter, that believes that that’s the case? That those sorts of factions exist?
Mr. Klingner: Well, Victor, if I could just jump back in. You know, I remember in 1993-94 when some, including parts of the intelligence community, were saying Kim Jong-il is a bold economic reformer, and North Korea’s on the cusp of massive economic reform. Well, I think that was projection, rather than, you know, anything based on indications that we were getting. And similarly, I think a lot of the – in the past, the reformer versus hardliner was a lot of projecting. You know, those who spoke with North Korean officials were saying, my interlocutor is telling me, you know, this. And therefore, we know that North Korea’s on the cusp of you know, reform, et cetera, et cetera. And I don’t think the evidence was really there for it, but I think a lot of it was projecting onto either Jong-il or Jong-un sort of what some wanted it to be.
Dr. Cha: Ok. Great. Ok, John, you’ve been very patient. Your thoughts on this particular topic.
John Delury: Well, first of all, Victor, I think it’s funny you’ve assembled a panel here of three, you know, CIA veterans and one guy who wrote a book about the CIA in the 1950s. It feels a little like guy –
Dr. Cha: That was the plan. That was the plan. (Laughter.)
Dr. Delury: I’m the guy – (laughs) – I’m the guy with a knife at a gunfight. But I’m very happy to be here. (Laughs.)
I mean, I was thinking about this question of, you know, how to – I think we probably all agree he’s consolidated control. You know, there’s a decade – Bruce, Putin has him, right, in longevity of rule, but it’s – he’s been around long enough that in a way I think we’re beyond that question. It’s kind of how has he done it? You know, what patterns do we see in the way that he maintains that consolidation? And then what would be signs? I mean, this I’d defer to the three of you. But sort of what would be on the list of signs for, O, it’s weaker or it’s stronger?
You know, because I guess one place I might push back, while I agree with Bruce’s points about, you know, you can fall into this trap of mirror imaging and projecting – there’s reformers and hardliners. You know, there’s Democrats and Republicans running around Pyongyang. The danger is on the opposite end of the spectrum, analytically, you actually fall prey to what the North Koreans want us to see, which is a monolithic system. Everyone just wakes up in the morning and does what Kim Jong-un tells them. You know, there’s no politics in North Korea. There’s no – there’s no disagreement.
And of course, we know that’s wrong. It’s easy to say that’s wrong. But then you have to go beyond that. Ok, so what are they disagreeing about? You know, and our information is, obviously, extremely limited. So outward signs, you know, kind of on my list – and one of them has come up, Victor, as you’ve raised, you know, elite defections, erratic purges. Not just purges, but some strange pattern in the purging, in the up and down. Generational tensions we haven’t talked about. Population flight, right, like refugee flows, which we’ve certainly seen those historically.
As I’m a China guy primarily, so public protest is suddenly on the minds of China watchers in the way it really hasn’t been in quite a while. And pretty much all of us were shocked, were surprised. We’re not used to that at all in a North Korean context. But that would be on any list. So just a couple on those, and maybe we can circle back. But, you know, as far as the elite-level stuff, I think that the cases – Sue brought up, you know, a great list there. And there’s been some recent reshuffling. But it fits something – Andrei Lankov actually used this phrase a long time ago, about the rollercoaster style of Kim Jong-un. You know, promoting and demoting. And so I think the recent shifts as well fit that.
And Ri Yong-ho, there’s a difference between purged and executed. And I don’t know if you guys saw, I gather today in Seoul the NIS – you know, the leaks are out from the National Assembly report from South Korean intelligence. And at least what they said was they backed away from execution. Like, purged, yes, but they wouldn’t say yes or no on execution. You’re better than me at interpreting that, but I took it as, like, maybe not executed – which is the more significant thing.
You know, if Ri Yong-ho, for whatever reason – I mean, he lost the foreign ministership, for sure. So in a sense, he was purged, you know? So I don’t know. At this point, I draw a big line between “purge” and all the things that can include in Yomiuri’s meaning and in sources versus “executed.” Even “executed,” you know, I do – I’m one of those who will continue to argue there’s something reformist or certainly economically oriented about Kim Jong-un. But that’s not incompatible with being brutal. And he’s definitely brutal. You know, and so I wouldn’t put it past him for some reason that would be hard for us to fathom to have ordered the former foreign minister executed.
So generationally, it looks pretty consolidated. You know, he sidelined quite a few of the elders. Like, if we think about the image of the hearse and who walked alongside that hearse, in December – you know, on a snowy day in 2011, they’ve kind of been – with a harder or softer kind of nudge, push, purge, sidelining, retired out. You know, the elders are kind of retired out. He’s got his presidium, you know, his politburo standing committee, as it were, around him. Which are – he’s got, apparently, marital sort of alliances with a number of those men, you know, around him, who are married to his – Choe Ryong-hae’s son is apparently married to Kim Yo-jong. And so, you know, that’s kind of, in dynastic politics as well, you look for those sort of marital alliances.
So it seems like he’s ticked a lot of the boxes in maintaining – you know, and those are the patterns of how he maintains control over the elite, over the party. You know, then there’s the other question of how well he’s in control of the public, which to some extent is a moot point, because North Korea’s such a controlled system, you know, and the apparatuses is so good there. But again, I guess as a China person, who’s now rethinking a lot of premises that we’ve gotten wrong, it’s probably worth asking the question a little bit, you know, in terms of the popularity of Kim Jong-un.
I think he has been, as much as a Kim can be – and there is some evidence to support this, even from defector testimony, Victor, as you know – he’s generally been probably more popular than his father, you know? On the other hand, a lot of that popularity was in periods where we think actually the economy was improving and growing, which from what we know has not been the cast in the last few years. So is that going to start to cut into his popularity? And maybe with some groups in between just the average North Korean, who has very little influence, and the top party elites. But the donju, you know, the kind of entrepreneurial class – if they really start to feel this guy over the long run does not have our interests at all in heart, you know, does that complicate the internal politics of North Korea?
Yeah, so those would be my thoughts on the power question.
Dr. Cha: Great. Thanks. That was – that’s terrific. All four of you were terrific.
I want to move quickly to the next question, which – well, first, I – and in your responses, please feel free to respond to anything that you’ve heard as we went around to all of you. But I’d like to ask you the next question, which focuses on the health of the leadership. As we know, leadership transitions in North Korea happen because of health problems. And there clearly is a history of – certainly a history of heart disease among the men in this family.
Kim Jong-un, there have always been questions about his health. I have not met him. Some U.S. officials have met him. I have not met him. I have heard stories about how poor health he’s in. When, for example, they went to – when they had the inter-Korean summit with Moon Jae-in and they went to Paektusan and that Kim Jong-un was struggling. Like, he was having a hard time walking to and from the buses. And then we saw he lost some weight, but now it looks like he gained it all back.
So any thoughts he – so we all know it’s a variable. It's clearly a variable in leadership and in control. But any thoughts that you have on this or what you think is going on with the weight loss and weight gain, and his – particularly his particular habits, would be great. So why don’t we start with Bruce.
Mr. Klingner: Ok. Well, you know, we all know that Kim’s not the epitome of health, and that he could just be one little wafer away from a demise – for those of you who follow Monty Python. (Laughter.) You know, but the health, it’s a variable. Again, we – it’s very, very important when he dies or becomes incapacitated. But we won’t know that until it happens. And, you know, remember, was it 2020, when he was out of sight for six weeks or something? And there was, you know, a lot of breathless speculation that he was – he was dead, he was incapacitated – or, he was dead from a heart attack, he was dead from failed heart surgery, he was incapacitated by the failed heart surgery, he had COVID, or he didn’t have any of that but he was afraid of getting COVID from his bodyguards, so he was out at, you know, one of his mansions.
So, you know, with all of those interviews, you know, the old timers we were all just saying, we don’t know. You know, no matter how many times they asked the question it’s like, we don’t know. Even the CIA didn’t know that Kim Jong-il was dead for two days, and we only knew once Pyongyang announced it. And then he came back and, you know, he was thin at the time. So I guess his wife had gotten him a Peloton. And, you know, then – but people were noticing, with a dark blue mark on his wrist, and thought that was a shunt from heart surgery or something. So, you know, but now his health has gone back up. So I guess the Peloton, like most of, you know, people’s new year’s resolutions, is gathering dust in the corner.
But, you know, he could be toes up on a slab any day. But in the meantime, you know, he’s still there. So we can then get into the next question of succession, but, you know, he could be around for quite some time. He’s still relatively young. So we could be having the how is his health and how soon will he die question for the next, you know, 20-30 years. You know, so I think, again, the important thing is, you know, he’s the one in the driver’s seat right now. And, you know, we can react to his policies or we can debate our own policies, but, you know, we can talk about succession during the next round. But for now, you know, he is the guy we have to deal with.
Dr. Cha: Yeah. Soo Kim?
Dr. Kim: I definitely agree with Bruce. I was kind of honing in on what he said about when analysts say, “we don’t know,” that’s probably not what people want to hear. It’s that they want some sort of concrete declaration or definitive conclusion that this is what’s going on. And I think what is making understanding North Korea so much more difficult is that there is a lot of speculation. And Kim’s health is definitely – it’s probably the most important variable, I would say, in terms of understanding how the country is going to operate from now until whenever the Kim regime decides to stop.
And I also recall back in 2020, I think it was in May, Bruce, when he was gone for about a month, and just resurfaced, there was a lot of speculation. And to this day, we don’t exactly know what happened. And it makes it all the more difficult, I think, for us as analysts, to not just know where exactly his health situation is, but what that’s going to mean in terms of succession, and Kim’s leadership, and how he’s going to govern, and how some of his health conditions are going to drive not necessarily the specific policies, but some of the public displays of, you know, leadership demotions, promotions, sisters’ appearances, and so forth. How those things are actually being impacted by Kim’s health, I think, is something that it makes it all the more difficult for us to understand, as Korea analysts.
I do have thoughts about succession, but I’ll hold that in reserve. But it’s not – the unknown about North Korea is not just the nuclear weapons. I think we understand that the country is going to continue developing them. The other huge factor, and the image of Kim Jong-un’s daughter against – alongside the ICBM test, make it pretty clear that neither one of those are actually going to go away. We have to deal with both, probably at the same time. And for Kim, I think, to show his daughter in public, we don’t know – we really don’t know if she’s going to be the successor.
But what we know is that she wants to show both his domestic and also his foreign consumers that whoever is going to be in charge, they are still going to have to deal with the weapons, and that he wants to portray, I think, an imagine of his role and his status as still being very solid, alongside the backdrop of, you know, North Korean officials clapping and cheering him on. It’s to show that he’s fine, at least on the exterior. And I think the one thing that we might be forgetting is that we – from the outside, we analyze all of these goings on inside North Korea – whether or not Kim’s lost weight, whether he looks bigger, he’s redder, he’s rounder.
That probably doesn’t not affect Kim’s – the overall, I would say, the path or the flow of Kim’s leadership, because we could get it wrong. And I think if we do get it wrong, it’s probably an advantage for Kim to just keep playing that, so that whatever longer-term ambitions he has, he can move forward with that while the rest of us are being distracted by what we think is going – is what North Korea is trying to tell us. And the signals that North Korea is showing to the public are important, but I think it’s also trying to understand what they’re not showing that might be just as important, if not more important, to understand where his health is going, of course, but also how and why the country is making such decisions on weapons, on dealing with South Korea, the United States, and so forth.
Dr. Cha: Thanks for that. Let me – so, let me – and we can transition from this into the leadership the succession question. So I guess – so we don’t know, right? So it’s an important variable in leadership, but we know nothing about – we know very little about it. I guess the other way to look at the question is, have we learned anything more about the last two times, right, from, you know, Kim Il-sung’s sudden death to Kim Jong-il’s sudden death. Have we learned anything more in that sense about how we should think about Kim Jong-un’s health? And then you can then, John and Sue, you can then roll from that into this question of leadership succession, you know, and the meaning behind sort of, first, the unveiling of the wife, the kid sister, and how the daughter. So why don’t we go to Sue first – Sue Terry.
Dr. Terry: Have we learned? Well, it’s such a different scenario if Kim Jong-un were to die right now. This is why I think both Bruce and Soo are saying this is going to be a very important variable. I would say even further that it’s going to be the most significant wildcard when we are thinking about potential for instability, actually, not that it would lead to instability. Because unlike Kim Jong-il, who had 20 years – and even Kim Jong-un had a few years – of planning. They knew – at least, he was tapped, right?
So right now, the important part is we know Kim Jong-un has all kinds of medical problems that we just talked about – obesity, chain smoking, high blood pressure, family history of diabetes, gout, whatever. And so if something were to – it doesn’t look good for him. We don’t know, but these things do not make it – this does not bode well for Kim Jong-un. And because he’s young and because he has not tapped a next successor – we’ll talk about Kim Yo-jong in a minute – I just do think that it is a variable.
And not that if Kim – I’m not trying to say if something were to happen to Kim Jong-un there would be instability and regime collapse. I don’t actually think that. I actually think that most likely it would lead to Kim Yo-jong or – you know, and there would be some sort of transition to power. But I am saying that if we – when we ever thought about regime instability and collapse, we did think about – Korea watchers did say, you know, a failed succession process in the North would probably be one of the most likely trigger of a regime instability, right? Rather than a coup or, you know, public uprising. It’s very – for a whole host of reasons, that’s very, very unlikely, like the ones we’ve seen in Tunisia, and Egypt, and the Middle East.
So I’m not saying that if something were to happen to Kim Jong-un right now it would prompt regime instability and collapse. But if the succession plan is contested, it is still a wildcard scenario and we cannot predict with confidence on how things will all play out. That said, if I’m a gambling person, if I have to bet right now, I would say, again, Kim Jong-un’s incapacitation or death even right now would still be – would still lead to relative stable transfer of power.
So if you want me now then to talk about sort of the, you know, Kim Yo-jong and recent unveiling of the daughter, and all that. Let me just talk about Kim Yo-jong first. I do believe that she today is still the most logical successor should something happen to Kim Jong-un. You know, she’s one sibling with actual power in the North, right? At least since 2015 she had run the most powerful agency in North Korea, Propaganda and Agitation Department. Until she did not really debut to the world stage until, like, 2018.
You know, and even 2020 she assumed more powerful roles that we saw, right, when she transitioned to the Department of Organization and Guidelines. Daily oversaw important decisions on key personnel matters, and so on. Like, she decides who’s to be monitored, demoted, promoted, punished, all of that – rewarded, banished. She was also authorized to run Korea policy – South Korea policy and the U.S. policy. And I think she returned in 2021 to this old position in Propaganda and Agitation Department.
But the point is, she has trust of Kim Jong-un and she also seems to be ambitious, unlike her older brother Kim Jong-chul, who had been long passed over as possibly heir. He lacks interest, aptitude for political life. We know he’s a big Eric Clapton fan. He’s not a player. He has not appeared in public since death of Kim Jong-il. So she’s probably the logical person.
Now, your question about Kim Jong-un’s daughter shown in public. He has three kids, right? Kim Jong-un has three children, including the one we saw, Kim Ju-ae, who is 10 years old. And Kim Jong-un has a son and two daughters. And one of the daughters we saw. Well, it’s going to be, like, 2030 before the oldest has grown into adulthood. So if something were to happen to Kim Jong-un, I still think it’s – again, this is why I keep talking about the sister. If Kim Jong-un were to die many years later then, sure, it could be one of the three kids that could succeed Kim Jong-un. But, again, you know, Kim Yo-jong is really second in command to Kim Jong-un, who is likely to succeed.
Now, in terms of – this is my last comment about this elaborate public rollout of his kid. Well, we can only speculate. And for me, all the reasons that have been offered by all the Korea watchers – I’ve read all of them – (laughs) – seem plausible, right? That it humanizes Kim Jong-un. That it makes him look more fatherly, therefore it makes him look more like a responsible custodian of nuclear weapons. Or even it’s said it’s a signal that the North is sending that the North is a nuclear state from generation to generation. It all seems plausible.
But I will just make this one comment, which is that this public rollout, it is very unusual for North Korea, for all of us who watch Korea. We just haven’t seen this before. Basic information on the children in the past used to be guarded as – it’s a close secret, right? Kim Jong-un as well as Kim Yo-jong and Kim Jong-chul, the first picture of these three children, it was released in April 2009, right? And Kim Jong-un was named for the first time in September 2010. So this is a very unusual move for Kim Jong-un to do that. I’ll just note that.
Dr. Cha: Great. John.
Dr. Delury: Yeah. Let’s see, to treat these two questions – and obviously they’re interrelated, as has been pointed out. I mean, I guess I might – while not disagreeing – I might underscore, you know, his birthday’s coming up, right? And he’ll be 39, from our best understanding. With all the health issues that have been raised, like, you know, that’s still young enough, I say. And, you know, I think in terms of what he thinks and the people around him think, I just – I kind of – and I think that’s also important, how they interpret his body and his health.
I think they probably don’t think about the Peloton, as bougie Bruce over there does, you know? In a serious way, North Koreans could see it as a sign of – I mean, it’s a food-scarce society, tragically, right? There’s a lot of hunger in North Korea. And his having – carrying that weight can be both kind of a sign of power and strength, and that he’ll survive. It could also cross into he’s doing so well and look how we suffer, you know? So that could – that could play against him.
But I think it’s probably more a sign – potentially more a sign of vitality than the way we interpret it in our culture, you know, and our medical culture, seeing it as a risk factor for an early death. And his dad lived to, what, 70? And his granddad, who he looks like, lived to 82. So I agree, I think, kind of with some of – well, everyone’s made this point. There’s certainly something – it is the factor, right? It’s a dynastic system now, and it is the known unknown. So we should talk about it. It’s right to talk about it. But if we’re talking about sort of death, that seems premature.
And then that actually, to me, makes it more of a question. I mean, the is unanswered for me. Pick up where Sue Terry just left off, I mean, why suddenly going public with what will inevitably be interpreted by some as a grooming process, right? You can’t rule out the possibility that we’re seeing an early public grooming of an heir. And it is not – just to echo that point Sue made – this is not North Korean style, right? Kim Jong-il, for that long period of grooming, it was quiet for a long time. I went over actually some of at least what’s been declassified of – you know, from the ’70s, ’60s and ’70s sort of CIA records of this.
And the CIA didn’t know what was going on until – you know, the CIA and The New York Times both came out pretty close to around the same time, you know, in the after ’75. It was, like, they started to show – the North Koreans started to show that this is what’s happening. You know, if you look at the early ’70s, the best academics and, again, what’s declassified of the CIA assessments, they were looking at Kim Il-sung’s brother, you know, just like we talk about Kim Jong-un’s sister. So why have they – I’ll just repeat the question. And, Victor, maybe you want to weigh in. I’d be curious what you think. But why are they going public with this grooming process?
And also, another one is – and I noticed Kim Jong-un broke with this tradition a little earlier in referring to Kim Jong-il as his father. Which they never did before. It’s, like, everyone knows they’re father-son, but it is never said. Kim Jong-un is breaking, again, with that by explicitly referring to the beloved child, you know, and making the parent-child relationship not only obviously from the pictures, but explicit in kind of the text, you know, of domestic media. So these are – these are different moves. And again, I’ll kind of throw the question back, because I think we need to maybe try to dig deeper.
Before I yield the conch here, I would just add I think the questions around gender are really interesting. You know, on the one hand Kim Jong-un – it’s not one example, right? We have quite a few now, and we have a new one, of a tendency in Kim Jong-un to empower and to promote women. It started with the first lady, who he, in what I would describe as a sort of normalizing move, you know, treats her more like a normal first lady. But from the beginning, again, unlike the precedents, she was a public figure and essentially a political figure. And she’s maintained that role. He has maintained that role for her.
We obviously have the rise of his sister, which has some precedence, but she’s probably more public and official in her roles. We’ve got the personal secretary, you know, with all those rumors, blah, blah, blah. Of course, North Korea has a female foreign minister, who maybe all of us have met, or some of us have met, Choe Son-hui, you know, who’s a serious woman and figure in her own right. And now we’ve got the daughter. So I’m of two minds.
One the one hand I can see how in this patriarchal, male-dominated, Korean – North Korean political culture, women and less threatening to Kim Jong-un. You know, it’s easier for him to trust, because he kind of knows, everyone knows, there’s a limit on how far they can really go. And obviously you have family relationships there as well. But this is a guy who killed his uncle, ok? So just because you’re family doesn’t mean you’re ok. So there does seem to be something – it could be that. But I am not precluding the possibility that she is at least contender, because this is all a future succession thing. That she is actually a contender.
He’s not the eldest son, by the reports. You know, he is the most able son. If she proves to be the most able child – I’m not convinced there’s no way it could be a woman. I know some very good, you know, North Korea experts say that definitively, but I would not put myself in that group, so.
Dr. Cha: So going – for Soo and Bruce, let me just – please respond, but let me just also add in two additional questions. As Bruce said earlier, there is nothing in the constitution about succession in North Korea, right? And so given this conversation, your thoughts – both Bruce and Soo, and all four of you – your thoughts on, is succession, however it’s defined internally in North Korea, something that can actually be horizontal? Or does it always have to be vertical? I mean, we’ve seen it only as being vertical in the past, but as John said there was speculation that it could be horizontal, right? Brother, right? Kim Il-sung’s brother or something. But in fact it’s always been vertical. So that’s one.
And then the other is I did want to ask this question about sort of the women in Kim Jong-un’s life and, you know, is he sort of – (laughs) – is he somehow a liberated man that’s empowering women? Or is this really another aspect of the insecurity? In a patriarchal society, the women are less threatening? And, I mean, it shows that there is – there is a support system around him that and that there is a generation ahead of him. But at the same time, it sends a message that he’s still the man, right, both literally and figuratively.
So, Bruce, you had a two-finger up. So, Bruce, why don’t you go first?
Mr. Klingner: Yeah. Just one last point on the health is, you know, during that six-week gap in 2020, again, the old-timers were saying, look, we’ve all lived through three generations of false reports of, you know, the leader’s death, and then they all came back, until they didn’t. But so on the succession, there will be no tears shed when Jong-un, you know, kicks the bucket, but the concern is a sudden, unexpected succession or demise. So, you know, if he’s elderly and there’s, you know, health problems and it’s a predictable event, you know, presumably behind the scenes there’s a plan and there’s going to be no instability.
If he dies suddenly, whether there’s a plan behind the scenes or not, the concern in Seoul and Washington and elsewhere will be, oh my God, what happens now? So everyone’s going to raise their alert status, we’re all going to be looking across the border to see what’s happening, who’s got control. And the fear is it would be, you know, a grab for power, who’s got control of the nukes, et cetera. And yet, it may be a very orderly process. So and it may even be phased.
Right now, it may be, you know, Kim Yo-jong, the sister, because she seems like she’s just as able to shiv you in the back as any man. And so she may be the first order. And maybe, you know, little Ju-ae would need a phonebook to, you know, reach up and touch the nuclear button, so she’s probably not first in line right now. Whether she is in 10-20 years from now, you know, sort of who knows, who cares? But I think the main thing is the system will perpetuate, I think.
You know, it’s in all of their interests to maintain the system, you know, whether there’s a battle between generals and the Kim family or not. I don’t think anyone expects that we’re going to have some Jeffersonian democrat come to the fore. There’s no opposition. There’s no opposition leader, like a Nelson Mandela, either in North Korea or elsewhere. So there’s really no indication of a change in policy if Kim Jong-un dies.
Dr. Cha: Great. Thanks. Soo? And thank you, Bruce, for all these images of phonebooks and shivs, and really appreciate them. (Laughs.) Soo.
Mr. Klingner: I’m the comic relief, yeah.
Dr. Kim: (Laughs.) So going back to a horizontal succession, I think we can’t rule out any possibilities, because there’s just this unknown as to we don’t exactly know what’s going on. And Sue made a good point about Kim Yo-jong being the most logical successor, because if you look at Kim Ju-ae, she’s only 10. And we can’t expect her to, you know, let’s say four years down the road Kim Jong-un passes away, at 14 years old she’s going to have a hard time not just ruling a country but gaining credibility both inside and outside. So I think that we have to think about all different options when it comes to the future of North Korean leadership.
The sudden, I think, unexpected demise of Kim Jong-un is what we – it’s not that we secretly hope, but it’s something that I think we secretly fear because, again, of the unknown. And I do agree generally with Bruce, in that it’s probably going to be the same system that perpetuates. But we also have to – we can’t rule out exceptions and unexpected happenings that might take place. I mean, we did not expect the third son to become a successor either, but here he is. So to just think, I think, in one particular traditional style of expected North Korean happenings is not going to be to our benefit either.
The public revelation of Kim Yo-jong – or, not Kim Yo-jong – Kim Ju-ae, not just on the first occasion, but the second occasion, where she looked exactly like her mom. I mean, like the mini-me version of Ri Sol-ju, with the same hairstyle and the same cut, and even, like, the same facial expressions, I thought was very – I mean, it induced goosebumps, for one thing. But I think that also caught a lot of people’s attentions. And I think it also formed as a distraction.
Obviously, we should be paying attention to leadership, but I think it was one of the other panelists earlier during the talk, where we got distracted. And we should be focusing more on the ICBMs. And here we were, focusing on the 10-year-old, because she was such an unexpected factor that popped, while we should have been focusing on how credible the threat the next weapon is going to be, and how we’re going to respond. We were momentarily, I think, sidelined or sidetracked by this new, cute, you know, unexpected fourth-generation Kim.
That induced, I think, a lot of speculation about, oh, is she going to be successor? And I think it was, to me, the several pieces of evidence that we saw – visual evidence – are not enough to declare and to put your money on it, and say that, you know, she is going to be groomed as the successor. And the description of her as being the “most beloved,” I think that’s where also people got hung up, is that, you know, they’re calling her “most beloved” because that’s a special way to describe a Kim child. But I don’t think “most beloved” doesn’t – it doesn’t necessarily mean the most qualified to be the leader.
But again, to be skeptical, you also have to think about the other side, which is that is a possibility. And if you were doing your homework, you need to stay on top of basically every possibility that might be happening inside North Korea, so that if there is a contingency you are maybe not fully prepared, but at least you know what to sort of expect and anticipate down the road.
Dr. Cha: Great. That – terrific. Really terrific set of comments this morning. We have about a minute left. Is there anybody that wanted to add one last thing? I guess I have one – all right, John. And I had one quick question, which was: The last time we had a succession process, you remember, there was a role that the Chinese played in all of that. I’m just curious about where you see – whether you see there being a Chinese role in a future succession as well. But that may be too big question for the last 30 seconds. So, John, go ahead.
Dr. Delury: Too big for 30 seconds. Try to weave it in later. Thirty seconds, just building on stuff Soo said, it’s odd, right, that we saw Ju-ae, but not her older brother. So I’ve got – I’ve got three moves from there. A, that intel is bad, because Rodman never confirmed there’s an older brother. So there is no hyung would be A. And I’ve seen various reports, actually even in South Korean media. B, there is a hyung he’s the one, and he’s being protected, you know? And so the distraction is maybe to the missiles, but actually it’s maybe him. He’s in Switzerland or he’s just secretly in North Korea, but we’re not going to see his face. C, you know, he’s a dud and she’s the one. And, yeah, how do we really determine between those three? And I’m sure you guys can think of others. But it is curious why we’re not seeing him, if he exists.
Dr. Cha: Bruce.
Mr. Klingner: Yeah, quickly, I would think we would see more of a deification of the next leader. You know, with Ju-ae, she’s holding hands with her dad, she’s holding onto his arm, almost like she’s being protected by him. You know, as opposed to a she’s only 10 but she’s lecturing the scientists on fissile missile – you know, fissile warhead production. Or, she just took up golf and she got 15 holes in one. So I think it could be the older son might be the one, and we’re waiting for him to be a little bit older so that then they can start breaking out the deification process. But again, we’ll have to see.
Dr. Terry: I like where Bruce and John – this option B, I like that. And just what Soo said about Ju-ae looking so much like her mom. It almost says – that tells me right there that she might not be the one, right? Because that’s too wife-like versus, like, what Bruce was just saying. So if I had to choose, I like this option B, John. (Laughs.) Maybe he’s being protected. I mean, we don’t know. Obviously, these are all speculation. But we should not be too quick to just judge just because now she’s been rolled out. I think that’s sort of the lesson for all of us here. (Audio break) – because that’s a really good question.
Dr. Cha: Well, that’s – so this is great, because now we have an excuse for sequel. We have an excuse for a second meeting to talk about the unseen brother – the unseen hyung. (Laughs.) That may be the title of the next one. Thanks, so John, Bruce, Soo Kim, Sue Terry. Thanks so much for joining us this morning, this evening. Thank you to all of our listeners and viewers, of which there are quite a few on this program this morning. And happy 2023 to all of you. I’m sure it’s going to be an eventful year on this particular topic, as it always is.