The sudden death of Kim Jong-un at this time would be a black swan event of high consequence. With most capitals across the global bracing for a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, a power vacuum in North Korea resulting from Kim’s passing would trigger a succession battle among factions of the ruling elite. The security state has a vested interest in sustained low-level conflict with the United States and will fight to preserve it. The successor will need to satisfy competing factions to demonstrate commitment to the status quo, perhaps going further than Kim to assure the military regime of its continued power. As institutions are not valued in authoritarian DPRK, the power will remain in the party or family. Chairman of the Organization and Guidance Department Choe Ryong-hae, the youngest member of the Politburo Standing Committee, is a key candidate to observe. If he is unable to consolidate support, the Central Committee may be called to oversee the process of succession. Kim Yo-jong, Kim Jong-un’s sister, is another critical leader to observe. The gerontocracy value her role as a figure head and she has strong wind in her sail to ascend to power.
The concern over the security of nuclear assets is heightened due to increased regime instability and power competition. As such, China will leverage its influence to play a kingmaker role due to its interest in regional security and averting humanitarian crisis. South Korea will have a high-wire act to balance its relationships with the United States and China. The United States is positioned to influence the outcome by supporting South Korea’s role at a pivotal moment. In such a scenario, all interests are aligned to strength regional security.
That said, a black swan event of this magnitude is first and foremost, of low probability. Wild speculation aside, there are many plausible alternatives for Kim’s whereabouts. The regime has been closed-lipped in the past and sees little value in narrative control. As such, his lack of a public appearance in weeks is likely just to limit his exposure to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Amber Jamil is an international relations professional with a focus on nonproliferation and South Asia. She is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council South Asia Center. She has a Master of Arts in international relations from Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.