A Kim Jong Un demise could destabalize the region, create a massive refugee flow and force the U.S., South Korea and possibly other regional allies to react to the upheaval.
That’s how experts contacted by Military Times see a Kim-less future possibly unfolding in the nuclear-armed Hermit Kingdom.
The questions about what would happen should Kim die or be incapacitated were sparked by a CNN report that the North Korean despot was in “grave danger” following a surgery. However, the Yonhap News Agency, a South Korean-government funded organization, later tweeted out that there were “no unusual signs” of Kim’s health.
But even if he isn’t on his death bed, Kim does have health issues and his exit from the stage would create turmoil, experts say.
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 Military Times. “It’s bad news for everyone.”
David Maxwell, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank who has two decades of military service in Asia said a U.S. and South Korean military reaction to that upheaval could require an effort that “will make Afghanistan and Iraq pale in comparison."
Like Chun, Maxwell, a retired Special Forces colonel who served with him, said a lack of clear succession would set chaos into motion.
Kim Il Sung designated his son successor in 1973 and the Kim Il-sung designated his son success in 2009 or 2010.
“It is unknown whether Kim Jong-un has designated a successor,” said Maxwell. "We can speculate that perhaps his sister Kim Yo-jong has been designated as his successor based on her recent promotion and the fact she has begun making official statements in her name beginning last month."
But it is unknown, said Maxwell, “whether a woman, despite being part of the Paektu bloodline could become the leader of the Kim family regime.”
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.
What happens then is a wild card, with a lot of bad possible outcomes that the South Korean/U.S. alliance must be prepared to handle, said Maxwell. He added that military planners, including himself, have long briefed senior leaders on what could transpire.
There is a “humanitarian disaster that will unfold in North Korea,” said Maxwell. It will be further complicated by the coronavirus.
“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.”
But 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.
“Since North Korea is a Guerrilla Dynasty built on the myth of anti-Japanese partisan warfare we can expect large numbers of the military (1.2 million active duty and 6 million reserves) to resist any and all outside foreign intervention to include from South Korea,” said Maxwell.
And then there are the North Korea weapons of mass destruction.
“Lastly the ROK/US alliance is going to have to be prepared to secure and render safe the entire WMD program, nuclear, chemical, biological weapons and stockpiles, manufacturing facilities, and human infrastructure (scientists and technicians),” said Maxwell. “This is a contingency operation that will make Afghanistan and Iraq pale in comparison.”
The U.S./South Korean alliance “has contingency plans for this,” Maxwell said. “It will be a combined effort because neither South Korea nor the U.S. can execute this alone.”
Those plans, however, have been “too long-neglected,” said Maxwell, adding that the cancellation of many high-level training exercises hasn’t helped.
In addition, the “friction of burden sharing as well as the move of U.S. forces out of Seoul to Camp Humphreys” means “the alliance is just not as well trained, ready, and solid as it has been in the past.”
Chun, the retired South Korean general, largely agreed with Maxwell about the refugees and potential civil war in the north, but does not see a U.S./South Korean military incursion past the 38th Parallel.
“What are we going to do? March in there?? Let the Chinese do it,” he said. “The DPRK is a sovereign country. Anyone going in there, including the Chinese, would be crazy. The ROK/US has a bad plan with bad assumptions. It will get us into a nuclear war.”
Howard Altman is an award-winning editor and reporter who was previously the military reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and before that the Tampa Tribune, where he covered USCENTCOM, USSOCOM and SOF writ large among many other topics.