We Are Not Prepared for Leadership Change in North Korea

by Stephen Bryen

Back around 1987 Michael Ledeen and I made a proposal to the National Security Council at the highest level.  We were talking directly to the Deputy NSC head, John Poindexter.

At the time I was a senior official at the Defense Department and Michael was a top advisor to the US Secretary of State.

What we told John is that we feared that the Soviet Union would collapse, and that the collapse would come in the not too distant future.  Therefore we proposed that the two of us, and some other experts, constitute a planning team where we would figure out strategies to deal with (1) the danger of a nuclear scenario or conventional war scenario and (2) a political assessment of how the U.S. could work to shape the political outcome of a Soviet collapse.

Poindexter told us we were nuts.

Michael and I did not do the project, nor did anyone else. As for the USSR, it collapsed in 1991 and we were very lucky really bad things (war, nuclear threats etc) did not happen.  

North Korea (the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea or DPRK) is not the size of the USSR and operates differently.  It is a family-ruled dynasty country now in its third generation.  There is no fourth generation. 

If Kim Jong-un actually dies, it is possible his sister, Kim Yo-jong will take over.  But it is also possible there will be a power struggle that will release political energies that have been suppressed for more than 75 years (if you also count the Japanese occupation which started in 1910, suppressed for 110 years). 

Kim Jo-yong

When the DPRK was established there was some political competition, but Kim Il-sung had those arrested and shot. Nothing much has changed since then and reportedly Kim Jong-un has already executed some 300 opponents.

There also is a somewhat hidden power struggle that involves both China and Russia with the North Korean regime. It is fairly certain that China tried to replace Kim Jong-un with his half brother, Kim Jong-nam. But Kim Jong-nam was assassinated with Sarin nerve gas in Malaysia. The two young women who carried out the attack clearly were operating on behalf of the DPRK, but the Malaysian courts deftly avoided implicating North Korea and both of the girls were released and sent home. Since then, Kim Jong-un has tried to repair his relationship with China, but also has managed to strengthen his ties with Russia, in an effort to counterbalance China. Some of this process is in plain view, because until now Kim’s hold on power was unassailable. But with Kim either incapacitated or dead, the gloves are off.

The gloves are also off as far as the families that paid a heavy price because their fathers, sons, uncles or cousins were executed by Kim Jong-un. There are a lot of angry families in the DPRK who would like revenge.  How that will play out if Kim Jong-un dies we simply don’t know. 

We can say that whoever topples the Kim regime will want to make massive changes in the DPRK political order (mainly by liquidating the Kim Il-sung family dynastic system).  We should be anticipating that, but just as Michael and my experience with Poindexter, I am sure all we are doing is making sure we can deal with any military spillover from a succession crisis, not much more.

My guess is we will have to rely on luck that a war does not result from a succession crisis.  But there are many other outcomes, including major movements of population that also has consequences, especially for China and South Korea.