Observations of an expat: Where is Kim? 

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Where is Kim Jong-un? Is he alive? Is he dead? Has the obese 36-year-old with a weird haircut had a stroke or heart attack? Has the coronavirus pandemic forced him into a secret lockdown? Does he have coronavirus? Has he been the victim of a palace coup?

The questions are being asked because the North Korean leader failed to make an appearance on 13 April at one of the most important annual celebrations in the country’s political calendar – the birthday anniversary celebrations for his grandfather, Kim il-Sung.

All the above questions are important. But even more important is who is likely to succeed him and what would a post-Kim world look like?

The current front-runner to succeed as leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is “Dear Leader’s” little sister, 32-year-old Kim Yo-jong.  The main reason is that the running of the highly secretive and oppressive communist regime is a family affair and the little sister is Km Jong-un’s closest family. However, there are some issues with the sibling. First of all, Kim Yo-jong, is a woman in a highly patriarchal society.

If the Politburo want to stick to the male line, there is another possible sibling successor: much older half-brother Kim Pyong-il (aged 65) who has only recently returned to Pyongyang after a lifetime abroad as a diplomat. In his case, the diplomatic career was more of an exile as the older Kim was reported to be estranged from his father.

But he may still beat his half-sister to the top job, partly because of his gender and partly because Kim Yo-jong blotted her political copy book at the US-North Korean Hanoi summit in February 2019.  If Yo-jong has a speciality it is public relations. She is believed to have been given the task of constructing a diplomatic formula that gave the appearance of a successful negotiation even if the two sides remained as far apart as ever. She failed dismally. The final sessions were cancelled and both sides refused to sign a communique.  Both Kim Jong-un and Donald Trump were made to look like amateurish fools.

Yo-jong and her brother are said to have a close relationship which dates back to their student days at the exclusive Liebfeld School in Switzerland.  She made her public debut at their father’s funeral in 2010, but was not mentioned by name in any North Korean communiques or news reports until two years later when she was filmed with her brother visiting a military riding school.

Two years later she formally started her rise through the family business when she was named head of the Propaganda and Agitation Department.  In 2017 she was made an Alternate member of the ruling Politburo and is rumoured to have taken control of the country’s powerful secret police. Then came the disastrous Hanoi Summit which resulted in Yo-jong being dropped from the Politburo.

However, her brother’s no-show at their grandfather’s birthday anniversary celebrations, led to her reinstatement; this time as a full Politburo member with the added title of Dang Joon-ang, or designated successor; all of which fuelled rumours that Kim Jong-un was on the way out or gone. It would seem that the North Korean leadership is wedded to the principle of a dynastic communist leadership which trumps any anti-feminism.

It is unlikely that a female Kim in power will result in any major policy changes. She is credited with manufacturing the cult of personality around her brother and will probably continue that so that it can be extended to herself and eventually her five-year-old son by a North Korean military official. There is likely to be a blood-letting of Politburo members – literally. She and her brother have already started replacing their father’s generation with their own younger acolytes.

The possibility of an early nuclear disarmament agreement with the US is unlikely. Kim Yo-jong will need to be fully secure in her power base before she came make any major foreign policy changes.  If there is to be any improvement on either the North Korea or domestic front  it is more likely that it will come from Kim Jong-un. So, please , Dear Leader, accept my wishes for a speedy recovery.

* American expat journalist Tom Arms is LDV's foreign affairs editor and Campaigns Chair for Wandsworth Lib Dems. His book “America: Made in Britain” was published on 15 October.

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10 Comments

  • John Marriott 1st May '20 - 12:28pm

    Are we really bothered?

  • David Evans 1st May '20 - 1:05pm

    Sadly, I think we have to be bothered. In the case of North Korea, we have a Nuclear power, with its population largely in abject poverty, and an unstable leadership. If he has lost control and there is no clear clear successor, there will be power struggle until a new leader is well embedded in control. The loss of clear command structures and the ‘need’ by those trying to take command to embed their power and authority, could lead to them targeting South Korea.

    The two countries are still technically at war with each other and whenever a North Korean leader feels under pressure, an ‘incident’ is manufactured to consolidate power. Usually they calm down with only a few casualties, but with Donald Trump looking anywhere but at himself for solutions, an invasion is not impossible and it is even possible a nuclear escalation could occur.

    Even a conventional war would be catastrophic for South Korea, and as internationalists believing in the rule of law, the West should never let a peaceful, Democratic country be overrun by a bellicose neighbour. But would the West do anything?

    It could be very dangerous times, and the dangers are very, very relevant to us all.

  • David
    Would China do anything?

  • David Warren 1st May '20 - 3:22pm

    We should be bothered because North Korea is a police state that represses human rights on a grand scale.

    I hope I live to see the day when the regime in the North falls and we see a united democratic Korea.

  • Expressing a preference for one type of dictatorship over another is not a pleasant pastime. However there is a case to be made for seeing those with a penchant for nepotism as the most dangerous because trusting your family more than other politicians reflects an underlying insecurity – which is why potential changes in Pyongyang matter.

  • John Marriott 1st May '20 - 5:10pm

    And how many cases of Covid-19 have they had north of the 38th parallel? Will we ever know? Now, that DOES matter!

  • David Evans 2nd May '20 - 8:21pm

    Manfarang – Why ask me? Suggest you e-mail [email protected] and ask him.

  • David Evans 2nd May '20 - 8:56pm

    John Marriott – There were over three and a half million deaths in the Korean war. South Korea lost about 1.1 million, North Korea lost around 2 million. China and the UN forces lost the rest. Knock on deaths due to subsequent starvation etc in North Korea more than double that. So far Covid 19 has accounted for around a quarter of a million.

    As you imply we will never know how many deaths there have been from Covid 19 in North Korea, but the importance of the Korean war and its ongoing importance in world geopolitical considerations should never be underestimated.

    Remembering and learning from that unique event is really important.

  • David
    He won’t say much to me but China will not stand idly by.

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