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Our North Korea quandary: there’s instability in our future

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s recent, sudden, and unexplained disappearance serves as an important reminder of how little we know about the hermit kingdom and the grave consequences of miscalculation. Since North Korea shut down its 880-mile border with China in January due to the COVID-19 outbreak, analysis of this latest episode was further muddled by a lack of firsthand reporting and on-the-ground contacts.

While North Korean state media shared images of Kim Jong-un celebrating the completion of a fertilizer factory last weekend, his sudden re-emergence leaves us with more questions than answers. As a morbidly obese chain smoker with a family history of cardiovascular problems, Kim Jong-un’s health is a geopolitical ticking time bomb for which we are woefully unprepared. This recent absence highlights our lack of knowledge not only about his individual health status, including if he experienced a medical emergency, but also – and more importantly – about critical aspects of regime stability, including succession, control of North Korea’s nuclear stockpile, and plans with key regional actors such as South Korea, China and Japan.

Rumors of Kim Jong-un’s possible demise spurred much speculation regarding who would take the helm following his death, which is likely to spark a powerful clash of ambitions among top leaders in Pyongyang. Given her prominent role in foreign relations of late, many analysts predicted that Kim’s younger sister – Kim Yo Jong – may be first in line to take his place, but the deeply patriarchal nature of North Korean society means that concerns about her age and gender cannot be easily dismissed. Other family members with ties to the sacred Mt. Paektu bloodline exist and could vie for ruling power amongst each other or perhaps against other party elites or military brass. The truth is – we don’t know, and the lack of a clear succession plan could lead to a power struggle that threatens the North Korean people and broader regional security. We need to gain more insight into that top tier of candidates who may replace Kim so that we are not blindly grasping at straws for intelligence about a nuclear adversary.

Chief among those regional security concerns is control of North Korea’s nuclear stockpile. Estimates about the size of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal range from 20-80 bombs, based on the amount of nuclear materials the North is believed to have produced. In the event of instability above the 38th parallel, it is far too easy to imagine how these weapons fall into the wrong hands. If there is a command and control collapse, officials jockeying for power may launch missiles to garner legitimacy, renegade scientists could start selling off weapons to the highest bidder, and/or terrorist groups could gain access to fissile material that could endanger the masses. In such a scenario where troops must be sent in to restore order, the United States must have a clear sense of the roles for each of the key regional actors to avoid escalating a nuclear crisis into a nuclear war.

Ongoing dialogue with these stakeholders is essential to ensure that there is an operational plan in place if the North Korean regime collapses. While the U.S. and South Korea have discussed such a plan for joint military actions, it is unclear whether the Trump and Moon administrations remain committed to it, especially in light of stalled defense cost sharing talks between our two countries. Furthermore, we must insist that China be more forthcoming about its own contingency plans at both the working level and at the highest levels. Unfortunately, when it comes to China, Trump is a corrupt quartermaster. He is singularly focused on skimming flimsy trade deals off the top while ignoring the duty he has to the broader security imperatives of our global competition with China. And if we don’t have China’s cooperation on nuclear security plans, there will be chaos in a North Korean leadership vacuum. The United States must prioritize close coordination with China, as well as South Korea and Japan, regarding the future of North Korea.

For now, Kim Jong-un appears to be back in charge, but we should take no solace in that development. Despite President Trump’s misguided love affair with the dictator, Kim’s leadership of the North Korean regime has spelled disaster for North Korean human rights and overseen a dramatic expansion of the regime’s development of nuclear weapons. Kim’s recent absence exposed fissures that we would be wise to close, lest that transition arrive before we’re ready and we find ourselves caught flat-footed in a nuclear standoff with a leaderless North Korea and an adversarial China amidst a humanitarian crisis with no end in sight.

Connolly represents Virginia’s 11th District. He is a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee and co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on Korea.

Tags Donald Trump Kim Jong-un North Korea

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