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September 10, 2008

Korean Conundrum: What if Kim's Kaput?

By

News reports that North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il has had a stroke could certainly be true. At 66, he's no spring chicken, especially considering his reportedly colorful lifestyle.

In fact, every few years, news of Kim's incapacitation - or death - makes the rounds, based on intelligence, rumor or even the reading of tea leaves. Sorting fact from fiction is a challenge when dealing with the ultrasecretive North Koreans.

But if he is really ill, there are much bigger questions at hand for the United States - ones that go well beyond the routine passing of another world leader.

So, what do we think we know?

First, Kim hasn't been seen in public for about a month, including a very conspicuous absence yesterday from a fanciful parade in the capital, Pyongyang, commemorating the 60th anniversary of the communist state.

(Since the "Dear Leader" is so inaccessible to outsiders, teams of North Korea-watchers in our country, South Korea and elsewhere follow his every public appearance closely to check his health and see who's in - or out - of favor among the elite.)

Some have even speculated that the parade and rally, which likely included as many as 100,000 people, was muted a bit over past years, perhaps due to the strongman's absence or illness.

Intelligence agencies have speculated that Kim may suffer from diabetes and heart disease - and might even have had open-heart surgery at some point. He was a drinker and smoker, but some believe he's sworn off those habits.

Second, a team of Chinese doctors has supposedly been sent to Pyongyang to attend to Kim - or another senior official. (Kim clearly doesn't trust North Korean medicine; he's often relied on outsiders, including the Germans, for his care.)

But, whatever Kim's health today, he is (like the rest of us) going to go at some time - which brings up larger issues.

For instance, who will succeed him? He has three sons from two different wives and a half-brother. While Kim was groomed for leadership by his father, Kim Il Sung, he has no clear heir-apparent of his own. (Indeed, his oldest son is in disrepute after being busted sneaking into Japan on a forged passport to take his kids to Tokyo's Disneyland.)

Of course, a family member isn't the only possible successor. The military - or factions of the Korean People's Army (KPA) - may well try to step in to fill the power vacuum if Kim becomes incapacitated or dies.

The KPA is generally believed to hold belligerent views, so a military coup could lead to serious provocations against (or even conflict with) South Korea and the United States - even Japan.

And what about the nukes? North Korea has been a confirmed nuclear-weapons state for almost two years now, with an arsenal of an indeterminate size. Under whose lock and key would those weapons come if the Stalinist regime collapsed?

There's also the possibility of instability, including warlordism among KPA factions. If that develops, should the United States and South Korea move north of the DMZ to intervene to stabilize the situation?

And what of China? It certainly has a vested interest in neighboring North Korea. Beijing could move across the border into a fray, putting US, South Korean and Chinese troops eyeball to eyeball.

While Kim may - or may not - be ill, these are certainly important questions that we (and our allies) need to consider now, not after the announcement of his death.

Heritage Foundation senior fellow Peter Brookes is a former deputy assistant secretary of Defense.

First Appeared in the New York Post

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