Unanswered Questions about North Korean Leadership

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The stability and continuity of the North Korean leadership is the biggest “known unknown” when it comes to assessing the future of North Korea. The CSIS Korea Chair hosted a workshop of former U.S. intelligence analysts and independent scholars with expertise on North Korea to discuss unanswered questions regarding three leadership variables related to potential tipping points or sudden changes in the country: political control, health, and leadership succession. A summary of the key points of the discussion is provided below.

The stability and continuity of the North Korean leadership is the biggest “known unknown” when it comes to assessing the future of North Korea.

Kim Jong-un’s Political Control of the North Korean Regime

Kim Jong-un has consolidated power and appears more confident than ever. More than a decade ago, this outcome would have been largely unexpected, given that Kim Jong-un was relatively young (around 30 years old) and had only three years to prepare for leadership when his father, Kim Jong-il, suddenly died in December 2011. By comparison, Kim Jong-il was in his early 50s and had been in a grooming process for over 20 years when he took charge of the country when his father, Kim Il-sung, died in July 1994. Despite assessments that power consolidation would be challenging for this young, untested leader, Kim Jong-un attained six important titles that gave him firm control of the party, the state, and the military within the first six months of his rule—a period when he would have been the most vulnerable to attempted coups or other challenges to his leadership. In this regard, the recent surfacing of Kim’s daughter, Kim Ju-ae, could signal the start of a leadership grooming process of greater duration than what Ju-ae’s father enjoyed (elaborated below).

Since taking power over a decade ago, Kim Jong-un has used a number of tactics to further cement his hold on power.

  • Kim has relied on his nuclear and missile arsenal as an instrument of control. This has given him the capacity to both generate support and demonstrate confidence internally while signaling to foreign leaders that they will face significant risks if they challenge him.
  • Kim has conducted brutal periodic purges of the leadership, including the executions of his uncle, Jang Song-thaek, in 2013 and his minister of defense, Hyon Yong-chol, in 2015; the assassination of his brother, Kim Jong-nam, in 2017; the replacement of all of North Korea’s top military generals; and the reported purge (and possible execution) of former foreign minister Ri Yong-ho in recent months. These actions have been used to remove the confidants of his father and any others Kim has perceived as a threat and replace them with Kim loyalists.
  • Kim has “retired out” elder statesmen and arranged marital alliances for individuals in his close circle to orchestrate a generational shift within the regime. For instance, the son of Choe Ryong-hae, who currently serves as chairman on the Standing Committee of the Supreme People’s Assembly and first vice president of the State Affairs Commission, is reportedly married to Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong.
  • To increase his popularity among the citizenry, Kim Jong-un has drawn on nostalgia among the public for his grandfather, Kim Il-sung. The grand-elder Kim had a grandiose and charismatic personality and ruled during a time when North Korea was not plagued by famine (as it was during Kim Jong-il’s rule) and had strong relations with its Cold War patrons, China and the Soviet Union. Kim Jong-un has made efforts to dress like his grandfather, and there have even been rumors that he underwent plastic surgery to look more like him.
  • Kim Jong-un has tightened state control on information inflow into the country to enhance socialist ideological grip over its people and drive the country into further isolation. In December 2020, for instance, North Korea passed the “Law on the Elimination of Reactionary Thought and Culture” to clamp down on foreign influence. Anyone caught consuming or possessing foreign materials or cultural goods such as movies and dramas will be heavily punished. The law also banned foreign speech, hairstyle, and clothes, which Kim called a “dangerous poison.”

Despite Kim Jong-un’s successful efforts at power consolidation, the situation remains unpredictable and opaque, and it is likely that Kim’s confidence masks inner insecurity. His brutal form of rule comes with the heavy baggage of knowing that he needs to “clean house” periodically to ensure that officials around him are not only loyal but will fear consequences if they are ever tempted to challenge his leadership. Economically, Kim faces the dilemma that all dictators face: regime survival and prosperity necessitates a degree of economic opening, but the process of opening could precipitate the regime’s collapse. Furthermore, Kim’s moments of peak popularity with the public (to the degree they can be measured) have coincided with periods when the economy was improving and growing. The combined effects of the Covid-19-induced lockdown starting in January 2020, international sanctions, and severe weather in recent years have created the worst economic contraction since the period of the great famine of the 1990s. Collectively, these conditions make it likely that elites and the general public resent or even despise Kim, though they cannot express this outwardly. As a result, even as Kim displays a facade of boldness, he probably worries deep down about the security of his rule.

Kim faces the dilemma that all dictators face: regime survival and prosperity necessitates a degree of economic opening, but the process of opening could precipitate the regime’s collapse.

Given this situation, it is important to identify and look for future indicators that Kim Jong-un’s hold on power could be waning. These might include

  • elite defections;
  • erratic purges (shifting from Kim’s usual vacillations of promoting and demoting officials to something more dramatic and irregular);
  • enhanced information and ideological control;
  • increased defections or refugee outflows;
  • generational tensions; and
  • public protest.

The last of these remains unlikely due to the regime’s extreme level of social control. However, given recent unpredicted popular protests in China against Covid-19 lockdown measures, social protest should remain on the list of possible developments that could weaken Kim’s control over the regime.

The Known Unknown: Kim Jong-un’s Health

Probably the biggest unknown concerning North Korean leadership is Kim Jong-un’s health, a variable that could take the form of death or incapacitation and that directly affects the trajectory of the other two variables: control and succession.

Kim Jong-un has a number of health issues, including obesity, chain smoking, high blood pressure, gout, and a family history of diabetes and heart disease. When Kim met South Korean president Moon Jae-in at the Mount Paektu summit in 2018, he reportedly struggled to walk to and from the buses, perspiring profusely and breathing heavily. Kim lost some weight at one point, but more recently he seems to have gained it back (though it is important to keep in mind that, culturally, this might be viewed a sign of vitality in North Korea rather than a risk factor for an early death).

Despite his numerous medical conditions, it is difficult to speculate about when or how Kim may die or become incapacitated. The regime is opaque by design, and North Korea is one of the hardest intelligence targets in the world. The Central Intelligence Agency did not know about the passing of Kim Jong-un’s father, Kim Jong-il, until North Korea’s public announcement two days later. Periodically, Kim Jong-un “disappears”—as he did for a number of weeks in May 2020—prompting much speculation about his condition. But even with the high level of attention these moments attract, top North Korea watchers rarely, if ever, have clear insights into the actual situation. Among experts, the perpetual answer to questions about Kim’s health is: “we do not know.” He is currently almost 39 years old (from experts’ best understanding), and his father and grandfather lived to the ages of 70 and 82, respectively. Considering that his father and grandfather had many of the same medical conditions as Kim Jong-un, he could be around for decades to come. Or, as one expert in the workshop noted, Kim “could just be one little sugar wafer away from [his] demise.”

The most important factor in determining the impact of Kim’s health on regime stability will be the timing of his death or incapacitation, specifically whether it occurs in his old age following a lengthy period of leadership transition or takes place unexpectedly and suddenly with no clearly identified successor. The latter situation would be the most precarious in terms of creating the potential for a failed succession process and regime instability. That said, while succession crisis scenarios must be kept in mind, one expert noted that the most probable outcome if Kim Jong-un were to die today would be a relatively smooth transition of power, perhaps to Kim Jong-un’s sister (discussed in further detail below). As in the past, the system is likely to perpetuate.

Plans for Leadership Succession

The North Korean constitution does not enumerate a succession process; it is not institutionalized in the state. Yet there was a clear process to the two past successions prior to and following Kim Il-sung’s sudden death in 1994 and Kim Jong-il’s sudden death in 2011.

There is currently no clear successor to Kim Jong-un. However, a number of developments in recent years have brought succession questions to the forefront, including the public debuts of Kim Jong-un’s wife, Ri Sol-ju, his sister, Kim Yo-jong, and his 10-year-old daughter, Kim Ju-ae.

The North Korean constitution does not enumerate a succession process; it is not institutionalized in the state. Yet there was a clear process to the two past successions prior to and following Kim Il-sung’s sudden death in 1994 and Kim Jong-il’s sudden death in 2011.

The panel experts agreed that Kim Jong-un’s sister, Kim Yo-jong, would be the most likely transitional leader if her brother were to die or be incapacitated in the near term. Kim Yo-jong has had significant power within the system for a number of years. While her debut on the world stage occurred around 2018, she had been running the powerful Propaganda and Agitation Department since at least 2015. By 2020, Kim Yo-jong assumed an even more significant role at the Department of Organization and Guidelines, where she oversaw important daily decisions on personnel matters such as who would be monitored, demoted, promoted, punished, or banished. She was also authorized to run South Korea policy and U.S. policy. By 2021, Kim Yo-jong reportedly returned again to her prior position in the Propaganda and Agitation Department. She seems to be ambitious, in contrast to her older brother, Kim Jong-chul, who lacks interest in politics and was passed over long ago as a possible heir. Optics also indicate that Kim Yo-jong is powerful and trusted by Kim Jong-un. In the heavily choreographed events surrounding the leader, she is the only individual who moves freely, guiding others on where to stand and making spontaneous moves such as fetching an ashtray for her brother. These menial acts counterintuitively suggest a degree of power for Yo-jong that no one else has.

The transfer of power to Kim Yo-jong would mark the first horizontal transition of power, as well as the first female leader of North Korea. The past two successions have been vertical, passed from one generation to the next. While these would both be significant firsts, there are currently no other members of the family within this dynastic system who seem as capable or interested in leading as Kim Yo-jong.

The other figure who has received significant succession-related attention in recent months is Kim Jong-un’s daughter, Kim Ju-ae. She first appeared in public by Kim Jong-un’s side in November last year at the inspection and launch of a Hwasong-17 missile. Kim Jong-un reportedly has three children, one son and two daughters. Kim Ju-ae, the second child and first daughter, is estimated to be 10 years old. She was the child who Dennis Rodman famously held when he visited North Korea in 2013.

Kim Ju-ae’s now-frequent public appearances are highly unusual, given the Kim family traditions of extreme privacy. Basic information about the children of North Korean leaders had been guarded as a close secret in prior generations. The first photo of Kim Jong-un and his siblings was not released until April 2009, and Kim’s name was not announced until 2010, one year before he took power.

The unveiling of Kim Ju-ae at this particular time, and at her particular age, has generated a great deal of speculation about Kim Jong-un’s possible intentions. Some have said that Kim’s introduction of his daughter provides a means to humanize him or to make him appear fatherly and responsible as a custodian of the country’s nuclear weapons. Others have suggested that Kim Ju-ae’s debut serves as a signal, both internally and externally, that North Korea’s status as a nuclear state and the Kim family’s hold on power are secure and will be passed on to future generations. The parading of Kim Ju-ae could also be a useful distraction from further advances in North Korea’s weapons programs. A more extreme yet still plausible explanation is a power struggle between Ri Sol-Ju and Kim Yo-jung. As Kim Yo-jung’s political power within the regime began to grow, Ro Sol-ju may have wanted to keep her in check and make it clear that her children are in the succession line. All of these explanations, or some combination of them, seem plausible.

Kim Ju-ae’s debut serves as a signal, both internally and externally, that North Korea’s status as a nuclear state and the Kim family’s hold on power are secure and will be passed on to future generations.

It is possible that Kim Ju-ae’s recent public outings mark the early stages of a succession process, though there are reasons to be skeptical of this explanation, particularly given her young age. As one expert noted, “Ju-ae would need a phone book to . . . reach up and touch the nuclear button. She’s probably not first in line right now.” Furthermore, Ju-ae’s term of endearment, the “most beloved,” does not necessarily imply that she is considered the most qualified leader. If Ju-ae’s public debut was an aspect of grooming, there would likely be more deification of her, such as showcasing her abilities to lecture scientists on fissile material or get multiple holes in one on the golf course.

However, it remains possible that Kim Ju-ae could be her father’s designated successor. The number of appearances with her father have proliferated since the beginning of 2023. Even though she has an older brother, who would be the most expected choice, given the vertical, male lineage of North Korean leaders that has prevailed thus far, his father might not deem that he is up for the job.

There is also the possibility that Ju-ae’s older brother is the actual successor. Under this scenario, the older brother is being protected from public scrutiny, perhaps attending a boarding school in Switzerland as his father did, while Ju-ae serves as a useful distraction.

One panelist noted the possibility that the intelligence on Kim’s children has been faulty, and Ju-ae has no older brother—after all, he has never been seen in public, so there is no firm evidence that he exists.

There are two possible explanations for the patterns surrounding the women in Kim’s life. Kim could genuinely be a North Korean version of a “liberated man” seeking to empower women. But the opposite could also be true, that Kim’s elevation of a number of women reflects his insecurity. According to this line of reasoning, in a patriarchal society such as North Korea, women are less threatening to Kim than men. He can therefore use women to show that he has a support system around him and that there is a generation ahead of him. At the same time, his female cadre sends the message that he’s “still the man,” both literally and figuratively.

Similar to the situation with Kim Jong-un’s health, there is no way to know for sure why Kim has chosen to raise the profile of his daughter at this time, or women within the regime more generally. Given these levels of uncertainty, all possibilities should be considered, even the ones that seem unlikely.


Most conversations concerning North Korea in recent months have focused on its nuclear and missile programs. This is understandable, given the unprecedented 95 cruise and ballistic missile tests North Korea conducted in 2022, alongside preparations for a seventh nuclear test. The regime started 2023 with a battery of ballistic missile tests in February as well. But an examination of who is controlling the country’s nuclear weapons and missile systems is equally important.

While the current situation is deeply concerning, it is worth considering whether Kim Jong-un’s sudden demise would bring better unknowns. Is this something to hope for or something to fear? Perhaps the answer is both.

There are two specific pieces of advice for policymakers grappling with how to manage leadership uncertainty in North Korea. On the one hand, it is important to focus on the current leader, the one “in front of the curtain now,” for “that’s the one we have to deal with.” At the same time, in considering the future of North Korea, it is important to keep a number of scenarios in mind, including the less likely “wild-card” ones. Balancing these two imperatives will help to ensure that policymakers are prepared to deal with whichever leadership scenarios the future may bring—from an extended period of Kim Jong-un’s rule to an abrupt succession and regime instability.

Assumptions about leadership are baked into all policy decisions on North Korea. They should be made explicit and periodically revisited when considering various policy options. Exercises such as this CSIS workshop—mapping out a range of possibilities concerning three pivotal “known unknown” leadership variables—help to serve that purpose.

Victor Cha is senior vice president and Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Katrin Fraser Katz is an adjunct fellow (non-resident) with the CSIS Korea Chair.

This is the third of three reports of the CSIS Korea Chair 2022 Tipping Points project, which looks at potential variables for critical change in North Korea and the peninsula. This project is supported by CSIS and the Korea Foundation.

Victor Cha
Senior Vice President for Asia and Korea Chair