What if Kim Jong Un is Dead?

Some informed speculation.

"Kim Jong-un visiting Berlin" by driver Photographer is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 Uploaded on March 30, 2017
“Kim Jong-un visiting Berlin” by driver Photographer is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Earlier in the week, Dave Schuler pointed to rumors that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was seriously ill or even dead. As more time passes without public confirmation that he’s alive and running the government, that speculation will naturally increase. (And recall that it was days before we knew Kim’s father had died nine years ago.)

Writing at World Politics Review, Steve Metz speculates about what it would mean.

Kim’s grandfather and father, Kim Jong Il, both had succession plans in place when they died, having groomed one of their sons to take over. Kim Jong Un’s children are young, so he has not been able to do that, which suggests three possible outcomes if he dies without a successor. Kim Yo Jong, Kim Jong Un’s younger sister who has played an increasingly high-profile role in the regime, might take control, continuing the dynastic bloodline. There are questions, though, as to whether a woman—even a Kim—could rule a deeply patriarchal society.

Alternatively, another male high in the regime but outside the immediate family might try to hold the existing system together. Yet it’s unclear whether a ruler not of the Kim family blood could do that.

Most dangerous of all, the entire system could collapse, with North Korea fracturing into a patchwork of ministates ruled by warlords. In this grim scenario, civil war and humanitarian disaster would be likely. Cash-strapped warlords might look to sell nuclear, biological or chemical weapons or technology, or use those deadly weapons against each other.

None of these scenarios is without risk. Indeed, there was good reason to wonder whether either of the two regime transitions from father to son would good smoothly. We just no very little about the inner workings of that society.

The remainder of the article focuses on the foreign policy implications:

In any of these scenarios, China is likely to act quickly. The last thing Beijing wants is conflict on its border or chaos that might tempt the United States to intervene. If the existing regime survived, whether under Kim Yo Jong or another senior regime official, China would probably embrace and assist the new leader. But if North Korea collapsed into civil war, China might feel compelled to intervene directly.

At that point, China would have two options. It could simply transform North Korea into a protectorate, providing economic assistance along with Chinese advisers and peacekeeping troops. Whoever held power in North Korea would not like being a Chinese protectorate, but might consider it necessary to consolidate and sustain control in Pyongyang.

Beijing’s other option would likely be shaped by the economic costs of its own recovery from the coronavirus pandemic. It could try to shift the costs of reconstructing and stabilizing North Korea to Seoul by agreeing to Korean reunification conditioned on the withdrawal of U.S. forces from the peninsula. That might or might not be acceptable to South Korea given the massive costs of reunification while it, too, is recovering from the coronavirus pandemic.

I’m not at all sure the South Koreans would agree to a reunification under those terms—and am pretty sure the United States would object to it as well.

As pessimistic as Steve’s transition analysis is—rightly, in my view—I think he’s too optimistic here:

Either of these options, though, could benefit the United States. America first became involved in Korea in 1950 to prevent the communist regime in the North, backed by the Soviet Union and China, from conquering the South. But that hasn’t been a realistic possibility for some time as the South grew rich and strong and the North sunk into crushing poverty and lost its Soviet sponsor. In this century, the United States has remained committed to South Korea to prevent intimidation from the North that might have spiraled out of control and led to war. This was always possible since the three Kim dictators have relied on demonization of the South Korean government and the United States to justify massive military spending, internal repression and an iron grip on power. Hatred of the United States and its South Korean allies is the glue that holds the Kim regime together.

With Kim Jong Un gone, this dangerous dynamic could change. Whether North Korea was a Chinese protectorate or part of a unified Korea, sustaining the personal power of a Kim family dictator would no longer be its national priority. So external aggression and expansive militarization would no longer be necessary or desirable. Put differently, it was never North Korea as a nation that posed a threat to the United States, but the pathological system designed to keep a Kim family member in power. If the Kim dynasty ended, then, there would be no basis for hostility between North Korea and the United States.

In the end, America’s role on the Korean Peninsula essentially depends on what South Korea wants. If a post-Kim North Korea became a Chinese protectorate focused more on economic development than military power and external intimidation, Seoul might see little need for a U.S. troop presence. The same would be true if Korea reunified. If Kim Jong Un leaves the scene without arranging for one of his children to become the fourth member of his family’s malignant dynasty, the long U.S. mission in Korea might, in fact, end on a successful note. And that would be a good thing both for the United States and for its Korean allies.

The United States has been on the peninsula for seventy years now. While our primary mission is indeed protection the ROK from the DPRK, it’s not the only mission. If the DPRK somehow transitioned to a benign regime, our desire to retain basing that close to China would remain. And one would think the ROKs would welcome our continued presence as a hedge against Chinese hegemony.

FILED UNDER: North Korea
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Sleeping Dog says:

    While more dangerous, particularly for the North Koreans, a fracturing of the country does provide the greatest and most likely opportunity for true change in NK. I’m wary of the Panglosian belief that that the next dictator will be different from the last. IIRC there were those who believed that Kim Jong Un, would be a vehicle for a change in the relations between the US, SK and NK.

    When Bashar al-Assad took over Syria from his father, there were those who believed that the western educated Bashar would be a more benign leader than his father. How’d that work out?

    Stability or change, always the great dilemma.

  2. Gustopher says:

    There might be a move to combine the bloodline with the patriarchy — hastily marrying the sister off to General So-and-So. Or start telling everyone that General So-and-So was the other son of Kim Jong Il, and that any reports to the contrary are fake news.

    But, if Kim Jun Un has died, I think the best solution would be for his sister to Weekend at Bernie’s the thing for decades.

  3. Stormy Dragon says:

    I’m not at all sure the South Koreans would agree to a reunification under those terms—and am pretty sure the United States would object to it as well.

    Under a normal administration, yes. Under the current administration, China would probably be able to get the Trump administration to agree to reunification and pullout without even asking South Korea. Trump hates having to defend South Korea and this way he gets to claim he won the Korean War and who cares how South Korea feels about it?

  4. Kathy says:

    I hope Kim at least had a plan to secure the nukes.

  5. Michael Reynolds says:

    I don’t have a link but apparently polls of South Koreans on the subject of reunification range from a strong, ‘Meh,’ from older people to a definite, ‘hell no,’ from younger people. The difficulties for SK would be enormous, much worse than German reunification.

    Xi has a bad hand to play here. He could end up with US troops on his border, or he could end up with Chinese troops taking over the SK/NK border which still puts his army right up next to ours. Ideally he’d work a diplomatic deal with SK and us to demilitarize the peninsula and share the costs, but the benefits to us are hard to see in such an arrangement as it would be a net gain for China and a bit of a loss for us. Our interests and SK’s might diverge at that point. But I’m sure President Lysol would manage the whole thing wonderfully.

    May you live in interesting times, eh?

  6. Sleeping Dog says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Assuming Kim is dead and assuming China intervenes, quite likely China would kick any discussions of re-unification, future borders into the future and a new US administration. China will have a massive humanitarian crisis on its hands and will need to stabilize that. Also Chinese intervention will face popular resistance abetted by members of the Kim regime. China will need time to publicize the horror of Kim and discredit his fellow travelers. It will take 3-5 years to settle the situation so discussion may not even begin till after the 2024 US elections.

  7. Kathy says:

    There’s another choice.

    Xi sends in troops. They seize all nukes and nuclear material, then seize or smash to bits all equipment and installations for processing nukes and nuclear material. They kill or capture a sizable portion of North Korean nuclear scientists and engineers.

    And then the People’s Liberation Army goes home and lets the remnants of the North sort things out

    OK, that won’t work, and leaves open the possibility of US intervention. But it is a choice.

  8. grumpy realist says:

    What China would be worried about is a) a collapse of NK into a total failed state b) sending refugees pouring over the border into China.

    They’ll do anything to avoid such a scenario, including IMHO propping up whoever looks to be the strongest candidate.

  9. Sleeping Dog says:


    Sort of like Bush’s plan for Iraq and Afghanistan.

  10. Kathy says:

    @Sleeping Dog:

    Except there are real nukes in North Korea.

  11. Tim says:

    If Kim Jong Un dies at the relatively young age of 36, the regime’s Directorate of Kim Family Mythology is going to have one heck of a time coming up with a reason for his relatively early departure from this mortal coil.

    Maybe they’ll launch one of their rockets and tell everyone that he volunteered to be the first North Korean to go and settle Mars. It could happen!!

  12. Kathy says:


    He was killed by American agents with help from traitors inside.

    This turns attention outward, and allows the regime, whoever he may be, to clamp down hard and persecute a lot of people, which serves to cow the rest.

  13. Tim says:


    He was killed by American agents with help from traitors inside.

    That’s a good one! And they could use footage from “The Interview” to blame it on Seth Rogen and James Franco.

  14. Michael Cain says:

    Who’s the top military guy with tanks? Always bet on the tanks.

  15. Kathy says:


    It’s practically a reflex. When Hugo Chavez died of cancer, many of his supporters in Venezuela made very loud claims that he’d been murdered, probably by the CIA. Maduro didn’t do anything about it, probably because Chavez had been ill with cancer for years, but he might have.

  16. MarkedMan says:

    No opinion but two observations.

    First, if someone took over North Korea, if it would be easy to rule. An entire populace trained from birth to do as they are told. Anyone who got uppity was killed, and in severe cases their entire family was wiped out with them. There is no one who’s going to stand up to a strong ruler with a ruthless police force.

    Second, China is an extremely racist nation and will not want to bring more non-Han in unless their land or resources was substantial.

  17. Tim says:


    First, if someone took over North Korea, if it would be easy to rule.

    That’s undoubtedly true for the masses. The real problem will be bringing the top hierarchy in the various power centers (whatever they may be) to heel. If you can do that, the people will do as they are told.

  18. JohnSF says:

    What if Kim Jong Un is Dead?


  19. dazedandconfused says:

    For an indicator, what happened when both Lil’Kim’s dad and grandpappy kicked the bucket was the army was instantly disarmed and restricted to barracks. Total lock-down of the regular army.

    They are aware their state-structure is highly vulnerable to a general or cabal of such conducting a coup. On the other hand if there is a coup the army wouldn’t be locked down but sudden movements are to be expected.

  20. de stijl says:

    Who Wants To Marry A Dictator?

    Tuesdays at 9, 8 Central on Fox.

    (My money is on Stephen Miller.)

    The rose ceremony is replaced by the execution ceremony.

  21. rachel says:

    @Tim: Yes, this.

    What grand-daddy dictator Kim did was to re-create the Joseun Kingdom’s social order after it had been destroyed by the Japanese about 50 years earlier. It’s in a truncated form from what it used to be but the Yangban class is still the only one that matters when a king-dies-without-an-heir power struggle commences.

  22. de stijl says:


    One of my fave games is Crusader Kings 2.

    Arranging the heir and the succession rules is a prime concern as is marrying off your kids for non-aggression pacts and alliances.

    Careful though, marriages usually put your kids into a different dynasty and their kids as well. They adapt the culture and religion of their new home.

    I now know more about agnatic cognatic inheritance and flavors of primogeniture than is healthy.

    I am doing a run to re-Paganize Europe coming straight outta Sweden, damn those heretical Roman papists! The goal is to defeat or co-opt Rome out of Catholicism and Constantinople out of Orthodoxy.

    Who are they to call me pagan?! Bunch of up-jumped wanna-be hegemonists with a crazy pants new kooky cultish religion.

    My gods are the true gods!

  23. Tony W says:

    As an American, my first concerns lie with the thousands of U.S. troops lined up along the border on 9-month deployments. They are quite vulnerable, as demonstrated a few months ago with the false alarm that resulted in quite a bit of extra laundry that week.

    We have a pre-teen mindset running the White House, and he will be looking for quick fixes rather than any sort of strategic plan. We are fortunate that he’s fairly anti-war, but he’s also quite vulnerable himself and relishing a distration from his COVID-19 failures.

  24. chris says:


    That would be an awesome sequel to ‘The Interview’

  25. Grant says:

    Hey James, great article. Just wanted to point out you have a small typo: “We just no very little about the inner workings of that society.”