Kim Jong Un’s death would cause a geopolitical meltdown that could see North Korea’s cold war with the West turn hot, experts have warned.
A power vacuum left by the dictator could explode into an ugly civil war, which would spark ‘humanitarian suffering’ and a wave of refugees fleeing the violence.
Military planners have forecast the fallout could force the United States and South Korea to mobilize against the nuclear-armed state in an intervention that would ‘make Afghanistan and Iraq pale in comparison’.
Whispers that Kim is gravely ill after undergoing heart surgery have been seeping out of the hermit regime in recent days.
Donald Trump has said there is no evidence to confirm the speculation, while Seoul and Beijing also cast doubt on the claims.
Yet, with no denial from official North media, attention in military circles has turned to wargaming the possible scenarios of the strongman’s death.
David Maxwell, a retired special forces colonel and now senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank, pointed to the blurry line of succession which could lead to a power struggle in Pyongyang.
He told the Military Times: ‘Units of the North Korean People’s Army are going to compete for resources and survival.
‘This will lead to internal conflict among units and could escalate to widespread civil war.’
Kim Jong Un’s death would cause a geopolitical meltdown that could see North Korea’s cold war with the West turn hot, experts have warned
Military planners have forecast the fallout could force the United States (President Trump pictured) and South Korea to mobilize against the nuclear-armed state
A US Army 2nd Infantry division Howitzer fires during live fire exercises at Younchun, near the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea in 2003
A rocket launch at an undisclosed location in North Korea from March 21
Retired Lieutenant General Chun In-Bum, the former head of South Korea’s special forces, agreed that the question of succession would split the regime in factions and unleash ‘chaos, human suffering, instability’.
Kim Jong Un’s chosen successor is not known, although his sister’s recent promotion suggests she is being groomed for leadership.
Kim Yo Jong was brought back into her brother’s inner circle to become head of propaganda.
She had been blamed for the collapse of the denuclearisation talks with Washington and cast out into the cold.
In the event of unrest in the North, the Maxwell said the US and South Korea may be left with no option but to engage.
He said: ‘The ROK/US alliance is going to have to be prepared to secure and render safe the entire WMD program, nuclear, chemical, biological weapons and stockpiles, manufacturing facilities, and human infrastructure (scientists and technicians).
President Trump said there is no confirmation that North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un is ill following a surgery. At the briefing Tuesday he wished Kim well and said ‘good luck’
On Monday, the news broke that Kim may be in grave danger after cardiovascular surgery, but whether there’s truth to the report is still up in the air
The extent of Kim’s declining health is not clear – North Korea’s state-run news agency KCNA yesterday reported on sports equipment, mulberry picking and a meeting in Bangladesh, but did not give an update on the leader.
The official Rodong Sinmun newspaper carried undated remarks attributed to Kim in articles about the economy, the textile industry, city development, and other topics.
As usual Kim’s name was plastered all over the newspaper, but there were no reports on his whereabouts.
Kim was last seen in public on April 11, and speculation about his well-being was first sparked on April 15 when he mysteriously failed to attend a ceremony to mark the anniversary of his grandfather Kim Il Sung’s birth.
Thae Yong Ho, a former North Korean deputy ambassador to London who defected to South Korea in 2016, said state media’s extended silence is unusual because it had been quick to previously dispel questions about the status of its leadership.
‘Every time there is controversy about [Kim], North Korea would take action within days to show he is alive and well,’ he said.
His absence from the April 15 anniversary worship, in particular, is ‘unprecedented,’ Thae said.
Daily NK, a Seoul-based speciality website, reported late on Monday that Kim, who is believed to be about 36, was recovering after undergoing a cardiovascular procedure on April 12.
It cited one unnamed source in North Korea.
A CNN report then cited an unnamed U.S. official saying the United States was ‘monitoring intelligence’ that Kim was in grave danger after surgery.
Since then, two South Korean government officials rejected the CNN report.
Senior party and government officials celebrate the 108th anniversary of founder Kim Il-Sung’s birth in Pyongyang on April 15 – a ceremony which Kim Jong-un inexplicably missed
At the White House, Trump threw cold water on it as well – though only because it came from CNN.
‘When CNN comes out with a report I don’t place too much credence in it,’ the president said.
Trump added that he ‘may’ reach out to Kim, who he’s met with three times, while also telling the North Korean leader ‘good luck.’
‘I can only say this, I wish him well,’ the president said from the podium. ‘Because if he is in the kind of condition that the reports say, that the news is saying, that’s a very serious condition as you know.’
South Korea’s presidential Blue House said there were no unusual signs from North Korea.
Robert O’Brien, U.S. President Trump’s national security adviser, told Fox News the White House is monitoring the reports ‘very closely.’
Bloomberg News quoted an unnamed U.S. official as saying the White House was told that Kim had taken a turn for the worse after the surgery.
However, authoritative U.S. sources familiar with U.S. intelligence questioned the report that Kim was in grave danger.
A Korea specialist working for the U.S. government said, ‘Any credible direct reporting having to do with Kim would be highly compartmented intelligence and unlikely to leak to the media.’
Kim is a third-generation hereditary leader who rules North Korea with an iron fist, coming to power after his father Kim Jong Il died in 2011 from a heart attack.
He is the sole commander of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal, which Trump tried unsuccessfully to persuade him to give up in 2018 and 2019 summits.
Reporting from inside North Korea is notoriously difficult, especially on matters concerning its leadership, given tight controls on information.
There have been past false reports regarding its leaders, but the fact Kim has no clear successor means any instability could present a major international risk.
Asked about how any North Korean political succession would work, O’Brien said, ‘The basic assumption would be maybe it would be someone in the family. But, again, it’s too early to talk about that because we just don’t know what condition Chairman Kim is in and we’ll have to see how it plays out.’
In recent years, Kim has launched a diplomatic offensive to promote himself as a world leader, holding three meetings with Trump, four with South Korean President Moon Jae-in and five with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
China is North Korea’s only major ally.
Donald Trump meets Kim Jong Un in Vietnam in February 2019 – a summit which ended abruptly without any agreement on denuclearisation
Losing the dictator could leave the nuclear power in a vulnerable position as it scrambles to replace Kim Jong. Among those who are believed to be successors is his sister, Kim Yo-jong, pictured meeting South Korean officials in the border village of Panmunjom last year
Speaking to Reuters, an official at the Chinese Communist Party’s International Liaison Department, which deals with North Korea, expressed the belief that Kim was not critically ill.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Beijing was aware of reports about Kim’s health, but said it does not know their source, without commenting on whether it has any information about the situation.
Daily NK said Kim was hospitalized on April 12, hours before the cardiovascular procedure, as his health had deteriorated since August due to heavy smoking, obesity and overwork. It said he was now receiving treatment at a villa in the Mount Myohyang resort north of the capital Pyongyang.
‘My understanding is that he had been struggling (with cardiovascular problems) since last August but it worsened after repeated visits to Mount Paektu,’ a source was quoted as saying, referring to the country’s sacred mountain.
Kim took two well-publicized rides on a stallion on the mountain’s snowy slopes in October and December.
Speculation about Kim’s health first arose due to his absence from the anniversary of the birthday of North Korea’s founding father and Kim’s grandfather, Kim Il Sung, on April 15.
North Korea’s official KCNA news agency gave no indication of his whereabouts in routine dispatches on Tuesday, but said he had sent birthday gifts to prominent citizens.
Kim has sought to have international sanctions against his country eased, but has refused to give up his nuclear weapons.
Trump has described Kim as a friend, but the unprecedented engagement by a U.S. president with a North Korean leader has failed to slow Kim’s nuclear weapons and missile programs, which pose a threat to the United States.
Joseph Yun, a former U.S. envoy to North Korea under President Barack Obama and Trump, told Reuters he believes ‘something really is quite amiss, quite awry right now in North Korea.’
‘It’s worrisome. If he’s seriously ill and he dies, there is no succession plan,’ said Yun, who has since worked as a CNN analyst. ‘You could see a huge power struggle, people jockeying for position. Their lives would depend on it.’
Yun said for all its secrecy, North Korea in recent years had been quick to respond to significant foreign news reports and it is noteworthy that it has stayed silent so far.
As for Kim’s relationship with Trump and faltering efforts to get North Korea to denuclearize, Yun said, ‘That’s pretty much put in doubt, not that it’s been going anywhere anyway.’
With no details known about his young children, analysts said his sister and loyalists could form a regency until a successor is old enough to take over.
Kim was the first North Korean leader to cross into South Korea to meet Moon in 2018. Both Koreas are technically still at war. The 1950-1953 Korean War ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty.