There is the distinct possibility that Kim Jong Un may suddenly end his reign as a result of his tumultuous health. This risk has an existential implication because Kim Jong Un’s leadership is directly linked to the survival of the DPRK. Two conditions must be fulfilled to avert this crisis: a viable successor must be found, and the chosen leader must be able to preserve the integrity of the DPRK.
There are several requirements that Chairman Kim’s successor must meet to assume power. First, the successor must have earned the trust of Kim Jong Un and uphold the ideological legacy of Kim Il Sung. Second, the hereditary system of leadership established under Kim Il Sung dictates that someone of the Kim bloodline must be chosen by Kim Jong Un to guide the DPRK. Third, the successor must have proven political experience and acumen.
The only leader who can fulfill these three conditions is Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong. In the event that Kim Yo Jong assumes leadership of the DPRK, an objective analysis indicates that she will not be able to preserve the integrity of the country for the following eight reasons.
Firstly, Kim Yo Jong cannot avert the dire economic situation in the face of sanctions, the coronavirus pandemic, and its dysfunctional and distorted system. The North Korean economy is disintegrating as a result of the 2017 U.N. sanctions and self-imposed isolation as a result of the emergence of Covid-19. Exports to the DPRK’s predominant trading partner, China, have plummeted to $200 million, a decline of more than 90% compared to 2016. Consequently, North Korea’s foreign currency reserves have been depleted by repaying the accumulated trade deficit with China, which North Korea can no longer cover. With no foreign currency reserves, trade with China has plummeted, resulting in a floundering GDP without the necessary strategic material imports for a functioning economy.
This precipitated contraction has emanated a serious destabilizing negative impact on the economy: a chain reaction of hyperinflation, an increase in foreign currency use (dollarization), human rights violations, North Korean defectors, widespread irregularities and corruption, income disparity between those employed in unofficial business and those hired in the public sector, as well as a further weakening of the rationing system and other bureaucratic control mechanisms, all of which have resulted in escalating executions.
Secondly, Kim Yo Jong will face internal peril due to the collapse of the small coalition leadership system that shields the supreme leader. The small coalition is composed of chosen elites who provide loyalty and protection to the supreme leader in exchange for economic benefits and special privileges. Without the economic resources to support these selected few due to the DPRK’s economic crisis, Chairman Kim’s position is becoming increasingly unstable. Without the backing from the chosen elite, the uncertainty of survival will precipitate under Kim Yo Jong.
Thirdly, while Kim Jong Un was able to improve the economic condition of North Koreans by allowing marketization from below, it came at prohibitively high costs: 1. Unofficially embracing private business undermines the legitimacy of Chairman Kim. 2. Illicit market activities thriving outside of state control prevent any institutional coordination. 3. The rampant spread of corruption and irregularities via bribery. Kim Yo Jong will inherit these economic weaknesses and be in a highly dubious predicament.
Fourthly, the mechanisms to control the North Korean population have disintegrated. Internally, the rationing system is defunct. Externally, a hostile foreign policy and brinkmanship, which beget a siege mentality with a sense of encirclement by a hostile enemy, have eroded with warming relations after multiple summits between the leaders of the U.S., South Korea, and the DPRK. Having lost the leverage of external and internal controlling mechanisms, in order to maintain power, Kim Yo Jong will be forced to rule via absolute fear by raising the level and scope of terror and execution.
Fifthly, the transition of power is endangered by the contradiction between the myth of “worker’s paradise,” catalyzed by the Juche ideology, and the prevailing social-economic calamity. Since Kim Il Sung, the halo of ruling legitimacy as the executor of his ideology has provided a shield to each North Korean head of state. With the removal of portraits of Kim Il Sung at the recent Sept. 29, 5th Party Congress of the 14th Supreme People’s Assembly, Kim Jong Un has already begun to distance himself from his grandfather’s ideological legacy in favor of his own achievements. This tacit departure from past glory signifies that Kim Yo Jong will not have the legacy of her predecessors to sustain her role as supreme leader.
Sixthly, one of the most serious perils facing Kim Yo Jong is whether she could secure the support of the military, the source of power in North Korea. While Kim Jong Un established control over the military by purging potential rivals and winning favor with the military elite via successful nuclear arms development under byungjin, invoking either scheme will be beyond Kim Yo Jong’s capacity due to harsh sanctions imposed by the international community. Moreover, given the disadvantage of gender, a woman with no military experience being embraced by the male-dominated military and securing firm control of the military is beyond her capability and presents an intractable challenge for Kim Yo Jong.
Seventhly, a most serious destabilizing threat is the wide dissemination of unwarranted information that contradicts ideological rhetoric. With over 360 jangmadang (black markets where foreign media is often sold) and over 4 million mobile phone users, the state security apparatus cannot contend with the volume and spread of “harmful” information among the general populace. This trend will continue to undermine Kim Yo Jong’s rule.
Eighthly, so long as the DPRK retains the ideology of class struggle, it will persist its hostile foreign policy. The DPRK’s display of brinkmanship will continue to be met with harsh international sanctions. The ideology of class struggle prevents meaningful reform, which expedites the dysfunctional aspects of the economy. In its current state, the DPRK will inevitably collapse if Kim Jong Un suddenly departs and Kim Yo Jong succeeds him as the supreme leader.
In order for Kim Jong Un to ensure the DPRK’s survival past his reign, he must trade his nuclear arsenal for economic prosperity and peace. In order to sustain the DPRK, Kim Jong Un needs to introduce radical economic reform. Chairman Kim can guarantee the sovereignty of North Korea during and after his rule by creating a viable economic development plan that guides economic modernization over a 10 year period. By redefining his ruling legitimacy with an inclusive economic system, Kim Jong Un will cement his legacy and the survival of the DPRK based on the popular support of the 25 million citizens of North Korea.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Dr. Chan Young Bang is president of KIMEP University, principal investigator at the DPRK Strategic Research Centre, and a former economic adviser to Nursultan Nazarbayev, the former president of Kazakhstan. His current research focuses on nuclear proliferation and the economic development of the DPRK.