The world is grappling with Covid-19. In the meantime, another matter has arisen. There was speculation concerning the safety of the DPRK’s leader and, arguably, the absence of information created a tense geopolitical environment in East Asia that was not to be underestimated. While not much could be undertaken, it is important that governments keep a close eye on such developments.
It was in the second half of April 2020 that media across the globe began reporting that Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s Supreme Leader, was experiencing health issues. He, apparently, underwent surgery and, by some reports, seemed to be «in grave danger». Especially Western media were quick to pounce on the idea that something may be very wrong in the authoritarian state that many find so fascinating and despicable at the same time. On the contrary to the West, however, South Korea rapidly issued their own statement, claiming there were «no unsual signs» regarding Kim’s health. Similarly, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson avoided a question on Kim’s apparent condition and said there were no official sources. However, Kim has been seen in public again. This begs the question whether media jumped to conclusions too quickly and Kim’s situation was, in fact, not as grave as suggested. While all may be good now, this is nevertheless an opportunity to assess the geopolitical implications of such a situation that also has the potential to arise again in the future.
As can be observed, especially the countries bordering the DPRK remained observant and silent during that period of uncertainty. Beijing and Seoul have close ties with Pyongyang and probably regarded the situation with unease. This is because there are some future scenarios that would arise from those circumstances that would directly affect them and others.
One would be that of an imminent leadership change, in the case of Kim Jong-un’s inability to continue ruling. Several candidates have been mentioned, such as Kim’s sister or uncle, but, ultimately, an event like that would be tied to great unpredictability. There is little knowledge as to what policies, both domestically and internationally, a new leader of the DPRK would implement. Would they change course or stay on track? Foreign ministries are likely confronted with a similar problem, and this is, potentially, why they chose not to comment. In case of a swift leadership change, North Korea’s neighbours would be the first to notice any impact and would therefore want to swiftly respond by addressing the new status quo with adequate measures.
The problem would be correctly defining these adequate measures. What would happen if sanctions were eased or tightened? Would some nations pursue their own interests and choose to meddle in internal state affairs? South Korea may be wondering how a leadership change would affect their ultimate goal of reunification, while China would be thinking how it could make North Korea a more useful partner.
In the event that Kim does indeed continue his rule, which seems probable at the moment, then many countries may even, for the time being, be relieved. After all, the world has become accustomed to North Korean diplomacy, albeit a bit incalculable itself. For instance, the summit between U.S. President Trump and Kim in Singapore was initially hailed as a great success, its latter counterpart in Hanoi described as a failure. One could also argue that Beijing’s response of sending doctors to check on the Supreme Leader’s health is a sign that they desperately wish to keep him in power, and they fear that any other scenario would hinder their interests.
In conclusion, there is little governments can do during such a time. For one, it is clear that uttering speculation would have negative diplomatic effects, since governments would not want to forsake their reputation. Second, it would be best for countries to prepare for each of these roughly sketched scenarios to be able to respond to any political changes within the DPRK. A likely result would be instability for some time that others may try to capitalise on, though in which form this would manifest is unclear. For now, it seems as though the status quo remains. This situation does show us, however, that it never hurts to plan for any sudden, unforeseeable outcomes.