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Dealing with Unsubstantiated Rumors from North Korea

Dealing with Unsubstantiated Rumors from North Korea

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By William Tucker
Columnist, In Homeland Security

When it comes to news on North Korea, rumors seem more valuable than currency. Daily NK, an online publication run from South Korea, reported that North Korean despot Kim Jong Un underwent a cardiovascular procedure, which prompted speculation over the leader’s health. Some reports went on to claim that Kim was in “grave danger” following the procedure, while South Korean officials claimed everything in the North is functioning as normal.

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While Pyongyang keeps a tight lid on anything related to Kim’s health, the leader’s penchant for smoking and drinking heavily are widely known. There is some speculation that Kim suffers from some sort of diabetes. While that aspect of Kim’s health is probable, it is not established fact.

In fact, there is little concrete information to support reports of Kim’s imminent demise. U.S. National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien pointedly stated, “we are monitoring these reports very closely and as you know, North Korea is a very closed society, there is not a free press there, they are parsimonious with the information they provide on many things, including the health of Kim Jong Un.”

North Korea is a nation that exists out of time. Its closed-off nature, coupled with seemingly bizarre behavior, creates a kind of allure that propels events involving Pyongyang into exaggerated importance. This is not to say that a nation with nuclear weapons and a large military are unimportant, but rather that events involving North Korea should be kept in their proper perspective.

Right now, a mere rumor about Kim Jong Un’s health has grabbed headlines in the middle of a pandemic. It’s odd to say the least, but it provides an excuse to explain matters of succession and the future of U.S. engagement with North Korea.

North Korea and Its Dynastic Leaders

North Korea is led by a familial dynasty. However, it has undergone only two changes at the helm: Kim Jong Il to Kim Jong Un.

After Jong Il’s death, a gradual transition to Jong Un took on a new urgency. When Jong Il ascended to the top spot, it took him three years to consolidate power. During that time, news out of North Korea was nearly nonexistent.

Jong Un’s ascension proceeded in a more orderly fashion, but the current leader’s health raises concern that an impromptu change in leadership could be problematic. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that regime collapse may be the most profound threat posed by the Hermit Kingdom.

Speculation that Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, whose profile has risen in recent years, is a potential candidate to take over the nation is certainly warranted. More importantly, however, is understanding that this familial dynasty does not rule in a vacuum. There is a balance in the North Korean system required to maintain stability.

Governance in North Korea Is Really Between the Korean Workers Party and the Military

The dynastic rule is a founding myth that has been sold to the population and that has elevated the Kim family to something almost spiritual. But the real details of governance depend on balance between the Korean Workers Party (KWP) and the military.

Complicating matters further, there is also a generational divide. Both the military and the KWP count among their leadership people who fought alongside Kim Il Sung, the nation’s founder and eternal president.

These individuals have long been a stabilizing factor in the regime, but they are elderly and dying out. Losing this generation that has provided a stable hand in the same instance that Jong Un may be ill must be a headache for the party and military elite.

Some among the elite, however, may see this power vacuum as an opportunity to seize power. When discussing future succession, this scenario is the real threat within the Kim regime.

American Interests and the Korean Peninsula

National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien’s statement that the U.S. is monitoring the reports on Kim Jong Un’s health shows that the U.S. is interested in these developments and in the Korean peninsula. The U.S. still maintains a significant military presence in South Korea, meant to dissuade any potential North Korean invasion.

U.S. interests in the region have shifted due to the China threat, which suggests that the continuance of a Cold War policy in the region requires rethinking. This does not mean abandoning South Korea; instead, it suggests that new threats in the region challenge the status quo.

Other than the U.S. troop presence is the existence of the North Korean nuclear program. While the U.S. has faced nuclear threats in the past, but creating a nuclear doctrine and tracking nuclear deployments vis-à-vis the Soviet Union is different than tracking nuclear threats from Russia, China, Pakistan and India.

Now, North Korea offers a complicated threat picture. With North Korea pursuing a submarine launch capability, however primitive, Washington must now deal with a direct threat from North Korea rather than viewing Pyongyang as a regional problem.

However, this direct threat is manageable. Much of North Korea’s behavior is meant to create a facade of a credible defense and support the regime’s domestic narrative of the nation’s global standing. Continuing dialogue with Pyongyang is helpful at the very least, but keeping the regime in check should be the goal of U.S. diplomacy.

It is difficult for such a weak nation to give up a nuclear deterrent, but continuing that effort should continue with an eye on regional stability. Rumors over Kim Jong Un’s health are just rumors – until they are not.

While it is important to monitor the situation of Kim Jong Un and his health, rushing to action based upon dubious or incomplete information is inadvisable. Maintaining a status quo that does not serve U.S. strategic goals is also problematic. Diplomacy with North Korea will always appear chaotic, but it is certainly better than the alternative.

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