Revisiting North Korea’s Succession Debate in the light of Kim Jong Un’s Reappearance

Hina Pandey
May 17, 2020


Recently, Kim Jong Un’s 21 days disappearance from the public spaces set the global media buzzing with the news about his failing health that subsequently translated into a debate on succession in the hermit kingdom. CNN on April 21, 2020, reported that North Korean leader’s health was under grave danger following a cardiovascular procedure. Other media outlets such as Newsweek and the Telegraph were quick to publish articles such as, “If Kim Jong-Un Dies, What Will Happen to North Korea?”; some even answering the obvious question in the minds of many North Korea observers; –”Kim Jong-Un: Who Would Be His Successor?”. The New York Post further extended the curiosity to imply that “Death of Kim Jong Un Could Create Refugee Crisis, Require Military Response”. Such was the gravity of speculations. 

While it is truly morbid to speculate the demise of leadership with unconfirmed reports, hypothetically, the question of succession of leadership in North Korea post-Kim Jong Un is a natural one. When the dynamics of the domestic-international politics of a country is centered on one important figure, concerns and doubts regarding the future course, in case of an unexpected reality, are ever-present and cannot be ignored.

While the North Korean leader’s presence at a recent public event on Labor’s day may have ended all the speculation about his whereabouts, it has certainly not ended the curiosity surrounding who would assume the next leadership in the hermit kingdom. And which legacies would continue from the current practices, especially with regard to nuclear diplomacy. Before dwelling into these questions, a brief note on what instigated widespread speculation is imperative.

Why the Speculation? 

The speculation concerning the succession of leadership surfaced due to his absence during the country’s important celebratory day that commemorates the birth anniversary of DPRK’s founding father- Kim Il Sung. Typically, April 15 is the day when the whole country pays tribute to the great Grandfather Kim. By all means, the annual day is a significant one, known as the ‘Day of the Sun’ that marks the beginning of the North Korean calendar year. Kim Jong Un’s absence on such a sacred day is bound to raise suspicion because only a few days earlier, the leader was seen addressing a parliamentary session. 

Additionally, it may be noted that Kim Jong Un is not perceived as a leader who remains shy of media. Recall the images of him riding a white horse to sacred Mount Paektu in December 2019. The absence on April 15, 2020, an unprecedented move, deliberate or coincidental, meant something. However, the lack of information and dependency on satellite images and unconfirmed reports of his whereabouts added to the worst apprehensions. Furthermore, it is to be noted that since late January and February 2020, the North Korean borders have remained closed due to COVID-19, and this may have influenced the lack of information. 

The Succession Debate and Nuclear Future

First of all, it remains unlikely that the North Korean regime has not prepared for such an eventuality. In fact, the two older brothers Kim Jong Nam and Kim Jong Chu were passed over for succession earlier by Kim Il Sung, indicating some thought. Thus, it remains unlikely that this thought would have missed the current regime. Furthermore, it is alleged that the oldest brother Kim Jong Nam was killed in an alleged assassinated attempt in 2017. Since the second brother – Kim Jong Chu, stays away from politics, the reports pointing to the succession in favor of Kim Jong Un’s younger sister-Kim Yo Jong appear obvious.

In fact, as per reports by North Korea Now, the country has been preparing for a succession contingency plan since late last year, which would enable power transfer to the younger sister –Kim Yo Jong. This decision was already made during a plenary session of the Worker’s Party Central Committee in 2019. 

To her credit, Kim Yo Song is the vice director of the Propaganda and Agitation Department of the Workers’ Party of Korea, an alternate member of the Politburo, who recently won a seat in March’s parliamentary elections and became more influential within the government after the collapse of Hanoi Summit. It is to be reiterated that the Politburo is the highest decision making body in DPRK. Additionally, the foreign media perceives her to be fierce. Recently, she was seen as the first to welcome Chinese Premier Xi Jinping during his visit to North Korea. The importance of China to North Korea cannot be overemphasized. Additionally, in recent times, Kim Yo Song has sent strong and polite communications to South Korea as well as the US. Besides, she is the one who can continue the Paektu bloodline, as the next to kin to the current leader are not of age. 

Alternatively, a senior party leader such as Vice Marshal Choe Ryong Hae was also viewed by experts as a possible successor. Last year, he was promoted to the President of the Presidium of the Supreme People’s Assembly. A regime loyalist, who also held the position of political head of the North’s military under the Kim Jong Un. There were speculations that his team would be supported by close aides such as Pak Pong Ju and Kim Yong Chol. Both leaders have played an influential role in shaping DPRK’s interaction with the outside world. The former had previously been a State Premier who supported free markets measures to revive the economy during sanctions, and the latter was the party Vice Chairman and former top nuclear envoy who served as intelligence chief. 

The assumption of fresh leadership for any country is always accompanied by questions of continuity or change in foreign policy with regard to key issues. For North Korea, a change in leadership would likely generate immediate questions on its future nuclear posture as well as diplomacy. Notwithstanding, the change of leadership, it appears unlikely that the near and immediate goal of DPRK vis-à-vis sanction relief as a quid-pro-quo to de-nuclearisation is likely to change. In so far as a nuclear deterrent is concerned, it is to be reiterated that under the leadership of Kim Jong Un the country has continued to advance its nuclear capability, made a historical presence in nuclear diplomacy through the Singapore Summit conveying that any progress towards denuclearization would occur only after concessions on sanction. Additionally, the pathway towards denuclearization would include the removal of nuclear threats from the region – it will not be unilateral. All this is aligned with the dual-track approach taken in 2013, known as ‘Byungjín’ line of thinking that promotes simultaneous development of economy and the nuclear deterrent. Hypothetically, if any change of leadership is to take place in North Korea in the near term, no compelling reasons are evident as of now for North Korea to give up on this dual-track approach. 

*** The author is currently an Associate Fellow with the Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS), New Delhi, India ***