Russ­ian jour­nal­ist Natalia Portyako­va from Izves­tia emailed this week to ask my thoughts about rumoured suc­ces­sion plans in North Korea. An extend­ed ver­sion of my response:

Kang Pan Sok, Kim Jong Suk, & Kim Yo Jong: Echoes of the Past & Rum­blings from the Future?

This week Dai­ly NK report­ed that Kim Jong Un has received heart surgery. Since then, rumours have swirled of Kim’s sud­den or immi­nent demise. It has been sug­gest­ed that his sis­ter Kim Yo Jong is being groomed as a suc­ces­sor, should the Supreme Leader per­ish, or should this mor­bid­ly obese, gout-rid­den youth’s health ren­der him inca­pable of rul­ing North Korea. This would be an extra­or­di­nary twist in the his­to­ry of the DPRK, which has already wit­nessed two tran­si­tions of pow­er with­in one rul­ing fam­i­ly since 1948.

On the one hand, the idea of a female leader in North Korea is not beyond imag­i­na­tion. Indeed, oth­er Kim Fam­i­ly women have long been ele­vat­ed to high sta­tus in North Korea’s rev­o­lu­tion­ary mythol­o­gy, most notably Kang Pan Sok — moth­er of Kim Il Sung — and Kim Jong Suk, wife of Kim Il Sung and moth­er of Kim Jong Il. 

Kang Pan Sok Stat­ue in Pyongyang

Kang Pan Sok was a ven­er­at­ed Com­mu­nist activist in the Japan­ese colo­nial era and Kim Jong Suk is hailed as the moth­er of the nation. It is also worth recall­ing that even the male Kims were and remain strong­ly asso­ci­at­ed with fem­i­nine and mater­nal imagery and lan­guage in North Kore­a’s rev­o­lu­tion­ary mythol­o­gy, as Bri­an Myers so well explains in The Clean­est Race.

Kim Jong Il with his par­ents Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Suk
Kim Jong Suk on the battlefield

Nev­er­the­less, it remains unclear whether in prac­tice North Kore­a’s patri­ar­chal mil­i­tary and Par­ty hier­ar­chy would accept the acces­sion of Kim Yo Jong to the posi­tion of Supreme Leader. Kim Yo Jong’s role in recent years has been large­ly sym­bol­ic, depict­ed as her brother’s shad­ow in North Korea and his diplo­mat­ic avatar dur­ing the Pyeongchang Win­ter Olympics in South Korea. Pow­er remains firm­ly invest­ed in the OGD. Kim Yo Jong does not have the same insti­tu­tion­al sup­port that Kim Jong Un inher­it­ed from his father (includ­ing many key grandees who were sub­squent­ly purged), nor has her acces­sion been fore­shad­owed in pro­pa­gan­da the way Kim Jong Un’s rise was fore­shad­owed for years before his father’s death. That said, Kim Yo Jong has received offi­cial appoint­ments as an alter­nate mem­ber of the Polit­buro and has fol­lowed in her father’s foot­steps as a lead­ing fig­ure in the Pro­pa­gan­da and Agi­ta­tion Depart­ment of the Work­ers’ Par­ty. Kim Jong Il’s for­ma­tive years were also spent in the PAD.

With no obvi­ous heir to Kim Jong Un — his own chil­dren too young to rule in their own right — Kim Yo Jong’s acces­sion would seem an act of des­per­a­tion by those in Pyongyang deter­mined to main­tain Kim Fam­i­ly rule. In the event of Kim Yo Jong’s acces­sion, we can expect oppo­si­tion from ele­ments of the Par­ty and mil­i­tary, per­haps the court of pub­lic opin­ion too. Pyongyang would invari­ably enter a new cycle of purges as fac­tions manoeu­vre in the after­math of suc­ces­sion. The sur­vival of a Kim Yo Jong regime, per­haps the sur­vival of North Korea as we know it, will depend on her abil­i­ty to nav­i­gate this tran­si­tion. The OGD — uphold­ing Kim Fam­i­ly rule — out­foxed Jang Song Thaek, yet for a while it seemed the sin­gle-heart­ed uni­ty in Pyongyang was cracking.

For all his youth, Kim Jong Un suc­ceed­ed beyond the expec­ta­tions of many that North Korea would col­lapse after Kim Jong Il’s death in 2011. Per­haps a Kim Yo Jong regime might defy the odds again. Yet dynas­tic tran­si­tion in the era of coro­n­avirus will prove chal­leng­ing. The mass gath­er­ings and pro­pa­gan­da events that are tra­di­tion­al­ly employed to con­sol­i­date Kim Fam­i­ly pow­er are dif­fi­cult to hold with­out spread­ing Covid-19 and the North Kore­an econ­o­my is con­tract­ing as cross-bor­der trade with Chi­na shrinks. 

Regime desta­bil­i­sa­tion, even col­lapse, would prove even more dan­ger­ous in a pan­dem­ic. A col­laps­ing WMD-armed plague state wedged between Chi­na and the Repub­lic of Korea is a night­mare sce­nario for the region. On the oth­er hand, this very threat may gal­vanise the PRC and ROK to work togeth­er to rapid­ly sta­bilise the sit­u­a­tion in North Korea should a cri­sis even­tu­ate. Whether the USA has an appetite for inter­ven­tion, even in a human­i­tar­i­an capac­i­ty, is uncer­tain under Trump. 

One thing is clear: even if he makes a good recov­ery from heart surgery, Kim Jong Un is unwell for a young man of his age. Whether now or in years to come, the demise of Kim Jong Un should be seen as an oppor­tu­ni­ty for pow­er to return to the Kore­an peo­ple. The elec­tion of Thae Yong-ho in the South Kore­an Nation­al Assem­bly has sent a strong mes­sage to Pyongyang’s polit­i­cal elite: North Kore­ans can choose a dif­fer­ent future and thrive.