Rumors that Kim Jong-il suffered a stroke have triggered
concerns over the ramifications of instability and regime change in
North Korea, particularly in regards to that nation's arsenal of
nuclear weapons. Over the years, there have been scores of rumors
regarding Kim, including illness, incapacitation, coup,
assassination, and even death.
Subsequently, jaded Korea watchers view such reports with
skepticism. But one day the rumors will be true, and the most
recent report could certainly be the one. For that reason, it is
important to carefully and dispassionately think through all that
Kim's departure from power might mean.
Of course, the demise of Kim's regime would present an enormous
opportunity to achieve peace, security, and freedom on the Korean
Peninsula. But as much as the peninsula-and the world, for that
matter-stands to gain, the opportunity comes with a number of
difficult, dangerous problems.
Kim's sudden departure would raise alarms over the transfer of
power, since no formal succession plan has been announced. There is
the potential for a power struggle among challengers to the throne,
which could lead to instability. U.S. policy options are limited to
contingency planning for scenarios that run the gamut from further
delays in the six-party talks to regime collapse and implosion that
draws South Korean or Chinese military units into North Korea to
stabilize the situation. U.S.-South Korean contingency planning
withered under previous President Roh Moo-hyun and may not have yet
recovered under the new administration in Seoul.
Latest Round of Kim Jong-il Rumors
A confluence of rumors suggests Kim Jong-il may have suffered a
stroke in August leading to some loss of physical capabilities.
Considered individually, none of these rumors are definitive. But
when measured collectively, they have been sufficient to cause
South Korea to convene an emergency meeting of its National
Security Council. The South Korean National Intelligence Service
told legislators that Kim suffered a cerebral hemorrhage but "is
recoverable and able to control the situation, and that North Korea
is not in a power vacuum."
Kim has not been seen in public for several weeks and was
conspicuously absent from a major event celebrating the 60th
anniversary of the founding of North Korea. The North Korean leader
had been at the 50th and 55th anniversary celebrations, and the
60th anniversary is considered particularly auspicious in Asian
cultures. A team of Chinese doctors reportedly traveled to North
Korea to treat a senior North Korean official, and a South Korean
diplomat reported that Kim collapsed in late August.
It should be noted that previous rumors include Chinese
intelligence "confirming" Kim had been assassinated two months ago.
In 2007, a team of German doctors visited Pyongyang ostensibly to
treat Kim after a heart attack, only to have the leader appear on a
routine inspection trip the following day. Kim was later reported
to be unable to walk more than 30 steps without assistance, but he
appeared healthy during the October 2007 inter-Korean summit, where
he denied rumors of his poor health. Several years ago, Chinese
doctors went to North Korea to treat a senior official, assumed to
be Kim Jong-il, but later determined to be an ailing distinguished
No Succession Plan
There has been no announced succession plan, though expectations
are that Kim will try to anoint one of his three sons. Kim's first
son, Kim Jong-nam, was disgraced and sent into exile after being
arrested for sneaking into Japan on a forged passport. There have
been indications that the second son, Kim Jong-chol, may be being
groomed for leadership similar to the lengthy process that preceded
Kim Jong-il's own ascension to power. The third son is seen as too
young to assume power. There is also speculation that Kim's
brother-in-law, Chang Sang-taek, could be anointed or that there
would be a collective leadership of military and Communist Party
There would be a greater likelihood of an orderly transfer of
power if a plan had been disseminated internally and had been
underway for some time prior to Kim's passing from the scene.
Similarly, if Kim was ill but still functioning, he could ensure
that any potential rivals were kept at bay until his successor had
gained sufficient influence on his own. Conversely, a sudden
incapacitation or death in the absence of a formal plan could
trigger direr, though less probable, scenarios.
For instance, competing rivals could appeal to military units
for support, leading to concern over control of North Korea's
nuclear weapons. A power vacuum or extensive unrest could lead
Seoul or Beijing to consider intervening to protect the North
Korean populace or their own interests. In 2002, Beijing inflamed
suspicions in both Koreas when it claimed the ancient Korean
kingdom of Koguryo as having been historically Chinese. China may
have been acting defensively to lay the legal groundwork to prevent
a reunified Korea from claiming the ethnically Korean portion of
northeast China as part of a "greater Korea." Koreans, conversely,
feared that China had an offensive strategy to justify seizing
North Korea after the collapse of the Kim regime.
No Impact on Nuclear Negotiations
Kim's departure from power will have little impact-if any-on the
already deadlocked six-party talks. North Korea refuses to accept
international standards of verification as called for in U.N.
Resolution 1718, let alone adhere to Pyongyang's own September 2005
agreement to return "at an early date" to compliance with the
International Atomic Energy Agency verification safeguards.
Pyongyang is seeking to minimize the intrusiveness of any
inspection requirements, as it did in the 1994 Agreed
The magnitude of the dispute between the U.S. and North Korea
over the verification protocol will make it more difficult for
diplomats to continue papering over differences. The Bush
Administration is constrained in its ability to again capitulate to
North Korean demands in light of rising criticism regarding its
perceived over-eagerness to reach an agreement and secure a policy
legacy. As such, there is declining potential for a breakthrough
during the waning months of the Bush Administration.
New Leader, Old Policies
If Kim Jong-il were replaced, the new leader would most likely
pursue the same policies. The next leader would have less of a
power base than Kim and would be more reliant on support from
senior party and military leaders who are overwhelmingly
nationalist and resistant to change. He would have to base his own
legitimacy on maintaining the legacy of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il
by continuing their policies.
There is little evidence of a "reformer faction" that advocates
bold economic reform, opening the country to outside influence,
reducing the regime's bellicose rhetoric and brinksmanship tactics,
or abandoning its nuclear weapons programs. North Korea has
perpetuated the image of factional in-fighting between "engagers"
and "hardliners" as a negotiating tool to elicit additional
Irrespective of the accuracy of the current rumors, they
underscore the need for thorough preparation for the inevitable
leadership change in North Korea. The U.S. must first ensure it has
prepared diplomatic, economic, and military responses to the range
of potential scenarios that would ensue from a regime collapse in
Pyongyang. The Bush Administration must press Seoul to complete
negotiations on Concept Plan 5029, which President Roh derailed.
Luckily, the new Lee Myung-bak administration is far more amenable
to close bilateral ties than its predecessor. Washington should
augment trilateral coordination with both Seoul and Tokyo as well
as confer with Beijing to prevent miscalculation during a North
is Senior Research Fellow for Northeast Asia in the Asian Studies
Center at The Heritage Foundation.