36-year old Kim Jong Un has been missing from the public eye and is suspected to be dead, according to unverified Japanese and American news sources. Last reported seen on April 11, Kim’s health and whereabouts have been the subjects of fervent speculation, particularly having missed the April 15 celebrations, marking the birthday of his late grandfather and North Korea’s founder, Kim Il Sung.
There are unquestionably those who would be looking at Kim Jong Un’s vanishing act opportunistically. However, one must be wary that North Korea without Kim may further destabilize the volatile region in the ensuing power struggle.
The Power Struggle
The prospect of sudden death to the leader of North Korea could bring about a power struggle within the ravenous country and its military brass. Despite being led by a family since World War II, North Korea is fundamentally a military dictatorship, and the lack of a Kim at the top of the family tree will mean a leadership vacuum that has to be filled by a military leader, if the current political structure has to continue.
However, in such tumultuous times, when the entire world is dealing with a pandemic, can a sound political process at all be envisaged in nuclear North Korea?
If stability is desired, then the potential successor should be from a military background. The successor would also need to be a hardliner, in order to suppress all internal revolt and deal with likely foreign interference.
China’s Backyard, China’s Problem
The struggle to control North Korea is not just North and South Korea’s business. It is also Beijing’s. The geopolitical perception that North Korea is the caged angry hound of the Chinese Communist Party will force China to act in order to suppress signs of overt instability in the region.
In the event of a transfer of power, China would be backing one party over the other. In the event of a grapple for power, China may also step in to occupy militarily.
Enter Kim Yo Jong
For a moment, we could consider a candidate recently emerged – Kim Jong Un’s 65 years old uncle, former military officer and ambassador to Europe, Kim Pyong Il. However, he is under house arrest and perceived as being out of favour currently.
It is Kim Jong Un’s famous sister, Kim Yo Jong, who is perhaps the most legitimate candidate at the moment. Kim Yo Jong came in the limelight when she travelled to the 2018 Winter Olympics hosted in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and was generally seen as a prominent, dignified front for North Korea.
She has otherwise garnered a reputation of being strongly by the side of her elder brother. North Korea analyst Robert Collins opines that she regularly makes the decisions on what’s important enough for the attention of Kim Jong Un’s scrutiny.
It wouldn’t be an absolute shock to see her rise to the very top in her country, being from the very same family dynasty that has ruled the North side of Korea with an iron fist since 1948. However, the fact that she is only a young woman of around 30 of age will surely make it difficult for her to take such reins of power in such times when there will be an internal struggle for power.
One cannot rule out even successive military coupes as a possibility. Not to mention, the nuclear missiles and warheads could become a trophy with the lower level militia. However, the ultimate prize is North Korea’s estimated $6 trillion of natural resources within its borders.
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