WASHINGTON – While the world frets over a North Korean missile launched on the Fourth of July, the latest provocation reignites perhaps an even more urgent issue: What would happen to the nuclear-armed communist state if its “Dear Leader” were gone?
North Korea’s line of succession is as murky as pinpointing just what its military actually shot into the Sea of Japan on Tuesday, as experts are divided over whether it was the nation’s first test of a truly intercontinental missile, one capable of hitting Alaska, or just another intermediate-range missile launched at a steep trajectory.
As for the country’s future direction, dictator Kim Jong-un apparently has no natural successors, leaving the prospect of a massive power vacuum were his demise to suddenly arrive.
What would happen next would be anybody’s guess and not a reassuring scenario, given a country whose leader has made paranoia state policy and who routinely threatens his neighbors, and the United States, with nuclear annihilation.
The question is more relevant than ever now that President Trump has expressed more resolve to confront and contain North Korea’s nuclear ambitions than any previous commander in chief.
That makes it perhaps timely to revisit an analysis of what would follow Kim, posted in 2014 by Scott A. Snyder, senior fellow for Korea studies and director of the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Snyder was moved to speculate on a post-Kim world because of the leader’s mysterious disappearance from public view for more than a month in 2014, especially at events he would have been expected to attend, such as anniversary commemorations of the founding of the Korean Workers’ Party.
These were the same types of events “that his father, Kim Jong-il, failed to attend six years ago following a stroke from which it took months for him to recover.” Even more ominously, North Korea’s official media had publicly acknowledged Kim’s “discomfort,” but they asserted he was recovering (from whatever it was that struck him) and was still in control.
The father, Kim Jong-il, died three years after his stroke, leaving his son in power, in 2011.Fast-forward to today, and it’s the same story: No one in the West ever really knows for sure whether the current North Korean leader is actually dead or alive.
North Korea released a photo of what it said was Kim watching Tuesday’s rocket launch and announced, “Our dear leader KJU was there to witness the glistening miracle.”
But the AP caption said it “shows what was said to be North Korea leader Kim Jung-un,” adding, “Independent journalists were not given access to cover the event depicted in this photo.”
Snyder’s conclusion was not reassuring for those looking for stability at the top: “[T]he viability of Kim family rule in North Korea may appear more fragile than it has been in decades.”
That may be all the more true now, following the murder of Kim’s half-brother earlier this year. Kim reportedly had his half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, assassinated by two women at Kuala Lumpur International Airport on Feb. 13.
And while those in the West might hope the demise of Kim himself would be good news, Synder expressed concerned that what followed would be chaos: “[T]he possibility that Kim Jong-un’s demise could spark a complicated family battle for succession that could upend the viability of the regime.”
And an “un-viable” regime armed with nuclear weapons – steeped in paranoia and belligerence – would be more than cause for great concern in the region and around the world.
Related column: North Korea was Trump bait by Jake McCandless
The basic problem, as Snyder described it, was that “Kim Jong-un does not have a viable successor within his own line and is unlikely to have one for two decades.”
The current leader, unlike his father at the time of his death, does not currently have any grown children. And that makes an understanding of any line of succession potentially complex.
Kim’s father made pinpointing the likely successor even more difficult by introducing “the thought that ‘side branches’ in the Kim genealogical tree constitute potential threats to legitimacy.”
That increased the number of relatives who might conceivably succeed the current leader to his entire extended family, making any precise prediction all that much harder.
It also increased the number of people Kim might seek to neutralize as potential threats.
On the other hand, the father’s edict also “introduced constraints on the viability of Kim Jong-un’s siblings (older brothers Kim Jong-chol and even the exiled Kim Jong-nam) or sister Kim Yo-jung (rumored to have already taken a central role in management of state affairs) as potential successors to Kim Jong-un.” (That number has since been reduced by one with the assassination of Kim Jong-nam.)
All of this palace intrigue adds up to just one sure thing: No one in the West knows who will succeed Kim. And it is even possible that no one in North Korea knows, either.
Hence, the shaky viability and possible fragility of the regime, as Snyder characterized it.
Just how fragile the regime may or may not be is difficult to discern because nearly everything concerning North Korea is murky, even events played out in public.
That included trying to establish just what kind of missile the state launched on Tuesday.
The communist regime claimed the missile had a range enabling it to reach Alaska, which would technically make it North Korea’s first successful launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile, something President Trump has vowed would never happen.
South Korean and U.S. officials called it an intermediate-range missile.
Russian analysts called it a medium-range missile.
“The missile reached an altitude of 535 kilometres (330 miles) and flew 510 kilometres before falling into the central part of the Sea of Japan,” said the Russian defense ministry.
North Korea claimed the missile reached an altitude of 2,800 kilometers (about 1,740 miles) and hit a target after flying 933 kilometers (about 580 miles).
David Wright, co-director of the U.S.-based Union of Concerned Scientists, said that if North Korea’s numbers are accurate, the missile could have a possible maximum range of 6,700 kilometers, or 4,163 miles, which would put Alaska in range of its striking distance.
“Technically, an ICBM is considered any missile with a range greater than 5,500 km (about 3,418 miles), so if this range estimate is right, this would be considered an ICBM,” said Wright. “It would still fall short of reaching the lower 48 states, however.”
Arms-control specialist Jeffrey Lewis tweeted: “That’s it. It’s an ICBM. An ICBM that can hit Anchorage not San Francisco, but still.”
The communist regime has conducted five atomic tests, three since Kim Jong-un took power in late 2011. Kim claims North Korea needs nuclear weapons to deter American aggression.
Nuclear disarmament talks collapsed in 2009 when North Korea withdrew because of international condemnation over a long-range rocket launch.
Western analysts believed two North Korean satellite launches since 2012 were really long-range missile tests, which triggered another round of sanctions and condemnation.
However, “actually marrying the (nuclear) warhead to the missile is probably the biggest challenge, which they appear not to have progressed on,” according to Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a former commanding officer of the British Armed Forces Joint Chemical Biological Radiological Nuclear Regiment.
But, he said of Tuesday’s launch, “in capability of missile terms and delivery, it is a major step up and they seem to be making progress week-on-week.”
Some outside experts believe North Korea already has the technology to put nuclear warheads on shorter-range missiles that could reach South Korea and Japan.
North Korea claims it has much more.
The communist regime’s Academy of Defense Science said Tuesday’s missile test was the “final step” in creating a “confident and powerful nuclear state that can strike anywhere on Earth.”