What Happens When a Totalitarian Leader Dies?
Updated: Jul 24, 2020
Three possible outcomes for the future of North Korea
written by Inuk Kim, guest contributor
In April, rumors of Kim Jong-Un’s death proliferated quickly through social media, directing the world’s attention (yet again) to North Korea, a country that both fascinates and concerns the rest of the world in equal parts.
While these latest rumors of Kim Jong-Un’s death have proven to be unsubstantiated, they raise many questions. What will happen to North Korea when the big man finally croaks? Does the North Korean ruling elite have succession plans? What will happen to North Korea’s nuclear stockpiles in the event of a state-wide collapse? What happens to the citizens of North Korea who are kept there against their will?
There are a few possible reunification scenarios that may transpire with the death of Kim Jong-Un. Let’s take a look at some of these more likely scenarios.
Scenario 1: Kim Jong-Un delivers economic growth to North Koreans, but dies suddenly.
In a scenario in which Kim Jong-Un comes to an agreement with the United States over nuclear weapons and successfully ends the sanction regime over the country, North Korea may finally be able to experience economic reform and growth, which is likely to resemble the economic reforms of China under Deng Xiaoping or Vietnam under its doi moi programs.
Signs of limited economic growth in North Korea have already appeared with the rise of the nouveau riche known as donju (literally meaning money masters).
These donju have gained more political clout in recent years, and if Kim Jong-Un does indeed create a viable middle class that resembles the ones found in China and Vietnam, then the donju and other North Koreans may become more confident in their country. Many migrant workers and refugees from abroad may even return home.
However, this outcome is largely affected by Kim Jong-Un’s health.
If Kim Jong-Un dies suddenly, there is potential for instability. The country may continue as a dynastic one-party state if Kim Jong-Un’s sister Kim Yo-Jong ascends to power with the approval of the ruling elite.
However, if there is a power struggle that leads to civil war, the Chinese or South Korean government may be compelled to invade North Korea to prevent refugees from spilling into their countries.They will also want to prevent North Korea’s nuclear stockpile from falling into the wrong hands.
The end result of a potential invasion may resemble the occupation of Western Germany after World War II: a joint occupation of powers with vested interests. In this case, North Korea will most likely be occupied by China, South Korea, and the United States.
However, North Korea may also turn out like Iraq after 2003, where disaffected elites and high-ranking military officers initiated an insurgency to retain control of their country. Careful management and integration of former North Korean soldiers will be vital in preventing them from becoming part of an insurgency. Gaining the trust of high-ranking officers will also be essential to tracking down all of North Korea’s nuclear weapons.
No matter the outcome, another issue will emerge: Who will help the occupying forces govern the North Korean space? One could easily see opportunistic apparatchiks or power-hungry donju assuming positions of power in the transition. There is also the concern of the civilian population.
While the North Korean population may be free of totalitarian rule, many will still have to worry about their basic human needs. The governing body placed in charge during this period of transition must address the issues of hunger, health, and shelter. The inability of the transitional governing body to do so will only help provoke unrest among the North Korean population.
Unfortunately, Scenario 1 will create a North Korea that will be unstable and fragile for the long-term.
Scenario 2: South Korea and the U.S. take out Kim Jong-Un through violent regime change.
In the very unlikely case that South Korea and the United States decide to attack North Korea due to a perceived nuclear threat, the likelihood of massive human casualties, refugee outflows, and political chaos will be very high in this scenario as well.
South Korea and the United States will likely target the North Korean leadership in their attacks, which will inevitably lead to a mission creep of military goals.
Once South Korea and the United States begin a decapitation strike on the leadership, they will quickly reach the conclusion that an overall regime change will be necessary. Not least of all to prevent Chinese designs on North Korea. And once a regime change has taken place, the United States and South Korea will have to address a political vacuum of their own creation.
There will also be concerns related to international law and policy. The United States, South Korea, and the rest of the UN will need to decide how to treat members of the Workers’ Party of Korea and general members of the North Korean elite. Appropriate justice will need to be meted out towards those responsible for crimes against humanity. These decisions will be difficult since totalitarian regimes tend to blur the lines between victim and oppressor.
South Korea will also have to be aware of the disillusionment North Koreans may face in their new political situation. Political freedoms are one thing, but if economic concerns are not addressed, mass disillusionment and long-term political extremism may occur within the people of North Korea. The transitional governing council in North Korea must be acutely sensitive to these concerns if it hopes to create stability and prosperity in the long run. Feelings of inferiority and abrasive market-reforms laid the grounds for illiberal democracy in Eastern Europe.
Scenario 3: Kim Jong-Un dies suddenly but peaceful reunification transpires.
In the event that Kim Jong-Un dies suddenly of illness (which is becoming a more and more likely outcome), there is a chance North Korean decision-makers propose a peaceful reunification with South Korea.
The North Korean elite will come to this decision, only if it believes it can maximize its longevity and power.
However, a peaceful reunification will not be a complete reunification. Korea will likely resemble a confederation, in which the Workers’ Party of Korea maintains political control over the north while a democracy is maintained in the south. This will be a tricky and potentially destabilizing arrangement for both parties.
Citizens of the north may grow increasingly impatient at the political freedoms and the economic prosperity enjoyed by those in the south, and many in the north may attempt to pressure the North Korean governing elite to enact far-reaching reforms to more closely resemble those in the south. If the North Koreans respond violently, there may be strong pressure from South Koreans to get involved. This may spiral into civil war, power struggle, and even create long-term political polarization. Large parts of the North Korean populace may come to see the South Koreans as detached, naive and untrustworthy for agreeing to confederation.
In sum, there are no good options if Kim Jong-Un dies. What the possible scenarios reveals is how South Korea, China, and the U.S. must all be acutely prepared for the possible fallouts of a messy political transition.
- Inuk Kim
Inuk Kim is a writer on global politics. He is a recent MA graduate of Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington D.C.
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