Reports continue to surface saying that North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un is in critical condition after a recent surgery.
Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation who specializes in Northeast Asia, joins a bonus episode of The Daily Signal Podcast. We discuss whether there is any substance to those reports, who Kim’s possible successors would be if he were to die, whether the U.S. position regarding North Korea would change if Kim were out of the picture, and more. Read the lightly edited transcript below or listen to the podcast:
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Rachel del Guidice: Reports continued to emerge saying that North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un is in critical condition after a recent surgery. I’m joined in a bonus episode of The Daily Signal Podcast by Bruce Klinger, a senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation who covers Northeast Asia, to discuss the situation. Bruce, it’s great to have you on The Daily Signal Podcast.
Bruce Klingner: Well, thanks for having me.
del Guidice: Well, thank you for being with us. We’ve all seen reports coming out this week that North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong Un, is in critical condition after recent surgery. Can you tell us what you make of all of these reports?
Klingner: Well, with anything in North Korea, it’s always hard to discern what is going on. Even when I was at the CIA, we had difficulty getting as much information as we would like.
It seems, though, that the rumors are overblown. We’re still waiting for more definitive information, but it seems that it’s all based on one single-source report, which simply said that Kim Jong Un had heart surgery, and he was recuperating in a villa. The next thing we knew is that CNN had a pretty sensationalist headline of “Kim Is In Grave Condition,” even though the wording of the article didn’t seem to back up the headline.
And then that just led to a frenzy, where some media even reported he was brain-dead, though they later deleted that tweet. So right now, the South Korean presidential Blue House is downplaying the reports. They say they haven’t seen anything different or unusual in Pyongyang.
People with sources in North Korea are saying that life in Pyongyang, the capital, does seem to be normal. Even some schools resuming after a [COVID-19] shutdown. North Korean broadcasting is normal, and even today they announced that in Kim’s name, greetings were sent to the Cuban president.
Now, we tend to be fairly cautious when we’re longtime Korea watchers. We’ve seen a lot of rumors in the past of not only Kim, but his father and grandfather before him, had a number of reports where they supposedly died and then they actually hadn’t. That said, we always are vigilant for what could be going on in North Korea. Both the grandfather and the father died, we didn’t know that they had died for a bit of time.
Even U.S. intelligence was reliant on official announcements. So, right now, I think the rumors are overblown, but that said, we have to remain vigilant for what could happen if there’s either a death or long-term sickness of Kim Jong Un, the leader.
del Guidice: Well, Bruce, given that added context, CNN had reported that Kim Jong Un had missed the celebration of his grandfather’s birthday on April 15th, and there were reports circulating even very recently this week saying this adds to speculation that can be more significant, because he’s missed something that he would never ordinarily miss. What would your response to that be?
Klingner: Well, that anniversary, which is the anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, the grandfather, who was the founder of North Korea, is a very important holiday. So, that did raise questions even before these latest rumors.
That said, the celebrations this year were more muted perhaps because of concern about [COVID-19] and the impact of having large crowds together. And in the past, both Kim and his father have missed certain events that were seen to be very important at the time, but then they came out of isolation, and whether they were recovering from a health issue or had just chosen not to go.
So, it’s an indicator, but I don’t think it’s a critically important indicator.
del Guidice: If Kim Jong Un were to pass away or be in a prolonged critical condition that would make him unable to retain his previous position, what would his possible successors, and who would they be?
Klingner: Well, we’d be in unprecedented territory, as we were both when the grandfather and the father died. The North Korean Constitution still doesn’t have any stipulations for formal succession, so we don’t know who would take the ring of power.
Up until a few years ago, the common assessment was that this very Confucian, very traditional Korean culture would never allow a woman to become the ruler. Therefore, any Kim family member that was a woman would be ineligible.
That said, Kim’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, in the last two years has gained a lot of prominence, a lot of authority, and so she may be the front-runner right now to take over from Kim, if he were to become incapacitated.
She may be the only one he really trusts. What we’ve seen is, since Kim came into power in 2011, he’s replaced even the most senior level of leaders, the minister of defense, at least six times; the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, at least six times.
So, no one really has a great deal of authority, perhaps except for the sister. So, she may be right now the most likely to succeed him, as unrealistic or as unlikely as that seemed even a year or so ago.
del Guidice: If she or someone else were to take the reins, do you think there’s any hope for a revolution or a good political outcome in North Korea, if Kim Jong Un were to die?
Klingner: Well, a lot of people would predict, as after the death of the father, Kim Jong Il, that this could lead either to an explosion in the sense of North Korea lashing out at South Korea or the U.S., or an implosion-of-regime collapse, civil war, loss of control over nuclear weapons.
But as we’ve seen with the previous leadership successions, I think the regime would do the most it could to maintain its stability and its existence. So, whether people around the sister or some alternative nominee, I don’t think necessarily that it’s going to lead to an explosion or an implosion.
That said, there’s really no indications that the regime is going to change its policies. There’s no soft-liner or secret person in North Korea that’s going to do a Jeffersonian democracy. So, I think the regime would continue, regardless of who’s in charge. And the policies are likely to remain, both the socialist domestic economic policies, and the very strong threatening foreign and security policies.
They made clear they don’t want to give up their nuclear weapons. They see that as central to their security, and they’ve really shut the door on negotiations with Washington and South Korea about not only nuclear programs, but really any kind of diplomatic dialogue.
del Guidice: … If Kim Jong Un were to die, would the United States’ position with North Korea change at all? I know Fox has reported that the U.S. is working on a contingency plan right now in case he were to die. So, what do you think this type of plan could possibly look like?
Klingner: Well, the U.S. along with our allies, South Korea and Japan, have a number of contingency plans—everything from responding with full-scale invasion by the North, to a number of other, not only lower-level military attacks or security threats, but also unrest or collapse in the North.
So, there’s a range of plans, and certainly, the Pentagon would be revising or updating them now, if they hadn’t already. But if there was uncertainty in the leadership in the North, I don’t think that the U.S. or its allies would be well-advised to try to rush in, in our own invasion.
It’s a country that has a million-man army, it’s got 60 or more nuclear weapons. It’s got missiles that can [reach] not only South Korea [and] Japan, but the continental U.S. So, unless we felt threatened by the loss of authority, it’s not something we want to rush into North Korea, potentially initiating a war with a nuclear-armed state.
del Guidice: Well, Bruce, speaking of nuclear weapons, do you think the U.S. faces more or less danger of a nuclear attack from North Korea if Kim Jong Un dies or is sick than we did before?
Klingner: Well, the biggest concern would be if there was a loss of control by the regime and then it devolved into different factions fighting for control.
And then we’d be very nervous about who was controlling the nuclear weapons and whether they had firm control of them. So, any kind of change in the North will cause a great deal of concern and even fear amongst military and intelligence circles.
Oftentimes, the alert status will go up or the readiness level will go up just in case there’s some kind of consequences from an ill-done change in leadership. So, we would be very concerned, and we would probably have our missile-defense forces and others on a higher state of alert or readiness levels.
del Guidice: Fox News is also reporting that there’s a likelihood of a humanitarian crisis if Kim Jong Un dies, and that the plan would rely heavily on China to step in and manage a situation on the ground inside North Korea, partly due to China’s proximity and all the logistical challenges that the U.S. faces providing humanitarian assistance. What’s your perspective here on this?
Klingner: Well, over the years, the U.S. has repeatedly tried to reach out to the China to discuss contingencies in case of humanitarian disaster or collapse. And Beijing has always been very reluctant to discuss plans.
The South Korean government has repeatedly emphasized that the Korean Peninsula is Korean, and that South Koreans in conjunction with the North Korean people should be the determiners of their fate.
So, we don’t know what issues might be a catalyst for China going in, either to put in place someone that they would like to replace Kim Jong Un or just to prevent a huge outflow of refugees across the Chinese-North Korean border.
So, it’s something that we want to be discussing with Beijing ahead of time, but unfortunately Beijing has often been very reluctant to discuss sort of mutual or joint plans.
del Guidice: How is the North Korean media portraying the situation right now? I know you said, obviously there is no free press there, so are they talking about it? And if they are, how are they talking about it?
Klingner: They’re not talking about it at all. The broadcasting today is normal. They are just having normal news issues on their TV and print media. So, they aren’t indicating any kind of concern or worry, which either indicates that the reports are false or overblown, or just as happened when the father and the grandfather died, the media didn’t report anything, even though the leader may have already been dead or had a stroke, until the regime decided to announce it.
And then they switched to 180 degrees to, “the Leader has passed on.” So, the North Korean media is an indicator, but also not necessarily an all-inclusive indicator.
del Guidice: Well, during an interview in Bloomberg, former U.S. Secretary [of Defense] Leon Panetta had said that if it is true that Kim Jong Un is unwell, it could be a serious security threat to the U.S., because the Kim family has been the sole regime in North Korea for over 60 years. What is your perspective there?
Klingner: Certainly, North Korea has been a threat ever since its creation in the late 1940s. It has a very large military, not only conventional forces, but nuclear and missile, and even biological and chemical weapons. And they also have proliferated nuclear and missile technology.
They’re committing crimes against humanity, against their own people, as well as engaged in a lot of illicit activities, including in the U.S. financial system. So, it really is a multispectrum threat to the United States and our allies.
But, right now the situation is stable. It’s not necessarily good. We continue to be threatened by them, but it’s stable. Our forces overseas are part of the deterrence to prevent North Korea from going too far to intimidate ourselves or our allies.
If there is a leadership change, successful or unsuccessful, there will be that concern of what could go wrong or what might a new leader do, especially if the situation is deteriorating. So, North Korea is a threat, both when it’s stable and when it’s unstable.
del Guidice: So, if Kim Jong Un were to die, what would the next steps for the country be?
Klingner: Well, we’d have to see who consolidated power; whether they did consolidate power. I wouldn’t envision some major announcement of change in their policy. I think instead they would try to adhere [to] the policies of the past, which have been sort of threatening to their own citizens, as well as to the neighbors.
So, there’s no person or group we can point to that would be similar to a Nelson Mandela or Aung San Suu Kyi, or [Vaclav] Havel in Czechoslovakia. And there’s no government in exile. There’s no alternative leadership that we could see, other than what’s already in the country.
Some might think or hope that the people would rise up against the regime, but they’ve been cowed for so many decades, the security services are so pervasive and brutal in their enforcement of North Korean control over the people. So, we’re not sure that there would be any kind of uprising against the regime. And if it was, it could become quite bloody if the regime is pushing back against the citizens.
del Guidice: Well, Bruce, thank you so much for sharing your perspective and for joining us today on The Daily Signal Podcast. We appreciate it.
Klingner: Well, thanks for having me.
del Guidice: And thanks for listening to today’s bonus episode. We do appreciate your patience as we record remotely during these weeks.