Ever since the 1948 founding of North Korea by Kim Il-sung, three things have been a certainty: regime brutality, the establishment of the Kim family’s rule, and the smooth transition of power from one generation to the next.
But, if a Facebook posting by a prominent South Korean official with close ties to China is true, brutality will remain a certainty but the other two may be challenged.
The West noticed something amiss April 15th – the most important national holiday in North Korea, equivalent to our Christmas. Originally established in 1968 to celebrate founder Kim Il-sung’s birthday, it was renamed “The Day of the Sun” three years after his 1994 death at age 82. To this day, North Korea forces its citizens to worship Kim Il-sung. They are required by law to display pictures of him.
Because of April 15th’s import, the first-ever non-appearance by the country’s current leader – Kim Jong-un, 35, the grandson of the founder – did not go unnoticed. But U.S. humint (“human intelligence”) within the “Hermit Kingdom” is so limited, uncertainty surrounded the strongman’s “no show.” Thus, his absence was not earth-shaking, as a non-earth-shaking reason for it could exist. While non-appearance could have been health-related, it was conjectured coronavirus might be a factor.
As noted by Thae Yong-ho – a North Korean defector now in the South – it is impossible to know anything about the leader’s real health status unless one is an immediate family member or bodyguard.
But what now has North Korea under the microscope is a Facebook post by Chang Sung-min. He is a former staff member under the late Kim Dae-jung, South Korea’s president from 1998-2003. While Kim Dae-jung embarked upon his infamous “Sunshine Policy” that sought to appease Pyongyang, earning him a visit to North Korea and the Nobel Peace Prize, it did nothing to change the course of North/South relations. But it gave Chang Sung-min, now a congressman, the chance to develop and maintain good relations with Chinese intelligence sources. As such he, in turn, has proven credible in the past concerning North Korea.
What Chang Sung-min shared in his post is alarming. He reported Kim Jong-un had undergone surgery and slipped into a coma. Remaining incapacitated, an urgent call allegedly went out to Beijing for medical assistance. That team rushed to Pyongyang but was allegedly unable to revive him. The next day, Chang back-tracked on this, saying the dictator was still alive but comatose.
Other reports have circulated that, following heart surgery on April 12, Kim Jong-un is in “grave danger.” Kim Jong-un’s actual health status remains clouded.
Whether Kim Jong-un has suffered a health scare or not, a discussion about succession is warranted.
For two generations of the Kim family, when word went out that “the King is dead,” it was followed by, “long live the King,” as a pre-ordained “Crown Prince” had been designated to succeed.
During the last decade of founder Kim Il-sung’s 46-year rule, he paved the way for his son, Kim Jong-il – the current leader’s father – to take over. When Kim Jong-il did so in 1994 at age 53, it was the first-ever successful father-to-son transition of power in a communist country. Similarly, Kim Jong-il then started paving the succession road towards the end of his 17-year tenure for his son, Kim Jong-un, to take power at the youthful age of 26 in 2011. Thus, for almost seven decades, North Korea’s power transition has been linked to the Kim family’s bloodline, fed by a personality cult built up around it. Accordingly, any non-blue blood would have difficulty justifying a grab for power without a Kim family member involved.
While the two previous Kims recognized the only uncertainty about their deaths was the “when,” causing them to designate successors, that reality never hit the youthful Kim Jong-un, who designated no Crown Prince. Probably the only time he even gave thought about succession was in 2017. Worried his half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, a former heir apparent, might still pose a threat, Kim Jong-un is believed to have had him assassinated at a Malaysian airport.
But now, in the event the King died, who, linked to the Kim family’s bloodline, might lay claim to the throne?
Again, due to a lack of Western humint and the fact that much about Kim Jong-un’s personal life has been kept private, little is really known about his children. He is said to have an illegitimate son, close to teenaged years. But, if so, the son would have little if any ability to do much, absent a senior military champion using him as a catalyst for wielding power himself.
Assuming Kim Jong-un now awaits the Grim Reaper’s escort to the portals of Hell, three potential candidates might lay claim, due to royal lineage, to his throne.
The first is his sister, Kim Yo-jong. She has often traveled with her brother or been sent to foreign countries as his personal representative. At age 32 – although a novice diplomat, raising the question of whether she would be accepted by the military as the Crown Princess – she has served as an alternate member of the Politburo and vice director of the Propaganda and Agitation Department of the Workers’ Party of Korea. Three generations of Kim males have all ruled the country with iron fists; while she appears frail, her looks may be deceiving as she has served her brother well enforcing his edicts.
Another candidate is Kim Pyoug-il, 65, the paternal half-brother of Kim Jong-il, and thus Kim Jong-un’s uncle, who, until July of 2019, was one of North Korea’s top envoys in Europe, serving in Yugoslavia, Hungary, and most recently Czech Republic. While Kim Pyoug-il has spent the previous thirty years representing his country in Europe, interestingly he was beckoned back to Pyongyang last year without explanation.
The last possible bloodline claimant, although a long shot, is Kim Han-sol, 25. He is the son of the half-brother of Kim Jong-un, assassinated in 2017.
One last consideration to weigh is what actually is known about Kim Jong-un’s health. While he did have health issues, interestingly they were of his own making as he mounted an intentional effort to mirror his revered grandfather’s appearance. Accordingly, he put on additional weight, bulking up on food, smoking, drinking heavily, and engaging in a lifestyle the late Hugh Hefner would envy. Thus, the “Incredible Bulk” was, or is, his own worst enemy.
Is Kim Jong-un dead, alive, or comatose? We still do not know for sure. While South Korea plays down its concerns and President Donald Trump rejects reports of his demise, Pyongyang continues fueling doubt with its secrecy. If Kim Jong-un emerges from the dark shadows of his kingdom to lead again, rest assured steps will be taken to ordain a Crown Prince; if he fails to emerge, a global crisis more serious than coronavirus may await us.
Lt. Colonel James G. Zumwalt, USMC (Ret.), is a retired Marine infantry officer who served in the Vietnam war, the U.S. invasion of Panama and the first Gulf war. He is the author of “Bare Feet, Iron Will–Stories from the Other Side of Vietnam’s Battlefields,” “Living the Juche Lie: North Korea’s Kim Dynasty” and “Doomsday: Iran–The Clock is Ticking.” He frequently writes on foreign policy and defense issues.