What happens if North Korea’s totalitarian leader is incapacitated or dies? Due to the lack of transparency regarding succession plans in the hermit kingdom, analysts believe Kim Jong Un’s death could “destabilize the region, create a massive refugee flow and force the U.S., South Korea … to react to the upheaval,” reports the Military Times (MT).
However, despite widespread rumors about his health, CNN reports that US intelligence has not confirmed the severity of the North Korea’s dictator’s medical condition and whether he is in grave danger after undergoing a recent surgery. The US continues to closely monitor the situation.
Earlier today, though, the Vice Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, John Hyten said he did not believe Kim was incapacitated. US News reported him as saying, “In the intel, I don’t have anything to confirm or deny anything along those lines. So, I assume that Kim Jong Un is still in full control of the (North) Korean nuclear forces and the Korean military forces.”
This could change at any time, sparking concern among strategic planners about the repercussions of Kim becoming incapacitated or dying.
Questions about his health began when Kim missed his grandfather’s 108th birthday celebration on April 15. This is a significant event that cements Kim’s image as belonging to a divine dynasty founded by his grandfather, Kim Il Sung. The current Kim had been seen four days before that at a government meeting.
Without a designated heir there will be “chaos, human suffering, instability,” retired South Korean Lt. Gen. Chun In-Bum, the former head of his nation’s special operations forces, told MT. “It’s bad news for everyone.”
David Maxwell, at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank has two decades of US military service in Asia as a Special Forces officer. He told MT that a U.S. and South Korean military reaction to that upheaval could require an effort that “will make Afghanistan and Iraq pale in comparison.”
No clear successor could lead to a regime collapse, said Maxwell, with the Kim regime and the Workers Party of Korea unable to govern the north or maintain military cohesion and support.
South Korea, China, and Japan (via boat) are going to have to deal with potential large-scale refugee flows,” he said. “Units of the North Korean People’s Army are going to compete for resources and survival. This will lead to internal conflict among units and could escalate to widespread civil war.
However, MT emphasizes that “even such internal strife won’t hinder the North’s animus toward the outside or its willingness to fight if they feel it is warranted.”
Lastly the ROK/US alliance is going to have to be prepared to secure and render safe the entire WMD [Weapons of Mass Destruction] program, nuclear, chemical, biological weapons and stockpiles, manufacturing facilities, and human infrastructure (scientists and technicians). This is a contingency operation that will make Afghanistan and Iraq pale in comparison.
The U.S. won’t be able to tackle this crisis alone. The U.S./South Korean alliance “has contingency plans for this,” but those plans have been “too long-neglected,” said Maxwell, adding that “the cancellation of many high-level training exercises hasn’t helped.”
While rumors of Kim’s death have prematurely circulated in years past, and this may yet prove similar, it is clearly time to update all these contingency plans. Without a viable designated heir in North Korea, this frightening scenario will continue to loom as a highly dangerous possibility.