If Kim Jong Un dies, who leads North Korea?

Kim Jong Un’s health emergency is reportedly dire, or maybe it’s nothing.
Kim Jong Un’s health emergency is reportedly dire, or maybe it’s nothing.
Image: REUTERS/Shamil Zhumatov
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It’s very hard to know what’s really going in North Korea. If reports this week are credible, supreme leader Kim Jong Un is in dire condition following surgery. That could prove false tomorrow. Either way, it raises the question of who would take control of the nuclear-armed nation of 25 million should he surprise the world and abruptly pass away.

Earlier this week, an unconfirmed report from Daily NK, a Seoul-based website, said the North Korean leader had undergone heart surgery and was recuperating at a villa outside the capital Pyongyang. Then CNN, citing an unnamed American official, reported that the US was “monitoring intelligence” that the supreme leader was in “grave danger.” Fueling speculation, Kim did something unheard of by skipping an April 15 commemoration of the birthday of Kim Il Sung, his grandfather and North Korea’s founder. And state media has been mum about his whereabouts, unusual considering it typically plasters his image everywhere, even if he’s just touring a lubricant factory.

South Korea said it couldn’t confirm reports of Kim undergoing surgery, and China dismissed them.

So, who would take over should he actually pass away? Considering North Korea has been ruled by the same family for seven decades, chances are good a Kim will be involved.

The possibility of his sister, Kim Yo Jong, inheriting power is “more than 90%,” said Cheong Seong-chang, an analyst at the Sejong Institute in South Korea, as reported by the Associated Press. She has “royal blood,” he noted, and “North Korea is like a dynasty.” In recent years she’s also accompanied her brother on high-profile meetings with world leaders including US president Donald Trump, prompting some observers to consider her North Korea’s No. 2 official.

Others see the macho culture of North Korea’s regime as a barrier to her assuming power. “The male-dominated, patriarchal leadership structure all but rules out Kim Yo Jong… as a potential successor,” Bloomberg wrote in 2017.

That same year, the supreme leader’s older, estranged half-brother Kim Jong Nam, who’d been living in Macau, was killed in a Kuala Lumpur airport via nerve agent. He’d known he was a target, and in an earlier letter had begged his younger brother—who viewed him as a potential threat—to spare his life.

Kim Jong Un does have another brother, Kim Jong Chol, who is also older. But it’s widely believed he has no interest in politics or public life, and he was deemed by his father, the late Kim Jong Il, as too “girlish” to wield power. He’s apparently a talented guitar player and was spotted at an Eric Clapton concert five years ago. Few think he’d be thrust into a leadership position, but the fact remains he has royal blood and is male, so some role could be in store for him.

Kim Jong Un does have some children, but they are not old enough to assume power.

He also has an uncle, 65-year-old Kim Pyong Il, who reportedly returned to North Korea last November after serving as a diplomat in Europe for decades. But he’s been outside the circles of power for some time. Another uncle, Jang Song Thaek, once one of the nation’s most powerful men, was charged with treason and executed in December 2013, two years after Kim Jong Un took control (and another threat gone).

Outside the family, there’s Choe Ryong Hae, who last year became president of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly, making him the nominal head of state. He’s served the ruling family for decades, but of course he lacks the all-important bloodline.

What might emerge, then, is a collective leadership incorporating both royal family members and loyal senior figures. In this arrangement Kim Yo Jong would likely be a major force, despite her gender, while Choe and others like him would serve as figureheads.

Some fear a power struggle could break out. Were that to happen, it could lead to instability that proves dangerous to the region, with nuclear weapons falling into unknown hands and potentially a massive wave of refugees streaming toward China.

But again, at this point all of this is based on Kim Jong Un, who is still in his mid-30s and presumably in excellent hands, actually dying sometime soon. If he proves to be in better physical condition than thought, he could very well survive and stay in power until the 2070s, watching Western leaders come and go as he continues to rule his nation with an iron first, improve his nuclear arsenal, and groom his male offspring to take his place in good time.