Kim Disappears and the World Fears: North Korean Succession and the Potential for Nuclear Catastrophe

Suggestions that Kim Jong-un is dead or dying, potentially following heart surgery, have been dismissed by the South Korean government. Yet it would hardly be a shock if the chronically obese, chain-smoking 36-year old suddenly keeled over, leaving an uncertain succession in Pyongyang.

Not exactly a picture of health

Such a scenario is scary; it is unclear whether Kim has any children but it is certain that none of them are going to be old enough to ascend to the leadership of the world’s most secretive state should their father die now. That raises severe questions over who will reign, whether a power struggle will be initiated, or perhaps even a popular revolution. Significantly, what will happen to North Korea’s nuclear programme?

It is now widely accepted that North Korea is a nuclear power and Kim, despite his eccentric nature, is not a crazed lunatic bent on global destruction. Rather, he has cleverly used the threat of nuclear escalation to prop up his regime – which keeps the vast majority of the population in destitution – whilst securing international summits with Donald Trump and preventing undue interference by other outside powers.

What will happen to North Korea’s nuclear programme in the event of Kim’s death is as murky as any other intelligence coming out of the country. Equally concerning is what could transpire should there be a nuclear accident in North Korea. Would scientists and officials try and keep the news from Kim? Would they downplay its significance? Would Kim endeavour to obscure the facts from the outside world, rather than seek itself? The answer to all of these questions is ‘very possibly’.

Certainly, when the world’s worst nuclear disaster occurred at the Chernobyl plant in Soviet Ukraine in 1986, a terrifying collective denial set-in. Nobody wanted to acknowledge the terrible reality of the explosion in Reactor No. 4 because that would signify complicity. In Soviet language, that meant losing your job as a best-case scenario, expulsion from the Communist Party and imprisonment being equally likely punishments.

The destroyed Reactor No. 4 at Chernobyl

Ukrainian Party officials were powerless to act without Moscow’s approval and the apathy that engulfed the country as quickly as the radioactive cloud in the aftermath of the explosion proved terminal. Nobody tried to understand the problem because they were downplaying it. Nobody called for an immediate evacuation of the nearby region because that would cause panic. Never mind that people were getting sicker by the second and the reactor was potentially on the verge of a more catastrophic meltdown which would have had greater global ramifications. In a state where the word of the Party was everything, the silence from Moscow was enough to ensure inaction.

By the time those in power had accepted what everyone on the ground knew – that a massive expulsion of radioactive material had escaped the damaged Chernobyl reactor – it was too late to reverse the consequences. As anyone who has read Serhii Plokhii’s excellent Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe will know, these consequences are still being felt today.

It would not be surprising if a similar fate befell North Korea if there was an incident at one of the country’s nuclear facilities. Rumours abound about Kim’s ruthlessness; nobody is going to relish telling the Supreme Leader that a new Chernobyl has arrived on the Korean Peninsula.

North Korea is thought to have a number of nuclear facilities

The case for non-nuclear proliferation is often seen in terms of the potential for a state to fire a nuclear warhead at an enemy, setting off a retaliatory chain reaction that ends in the destruction of a large part of the planet.

But the prospect of a nuclear accident remains a far more alarming and realistic disaster. That is why it is imperative that any country with nuclear facilities is open to inspections from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), who can ensure compliance with best practice and technical rigour.

Nuclear power is a clean source of energy that could transform the fortunes of the planet if wisely deployed. In the hands of rogue states, however, the doomsday scenarios we all dread appear much closer to home. Whether Kim is dead or alive, North Korea is the likely centre of a nuclear Armageddon.

Oklahoma City Bombing 25 Years On: the persisting threat of domestic terrorism in the USA

It is twenty-five years since the Oklahoma City bombing stunned the world and temporarily brought America to its knees. The horrific murder of 168 people at the Alfred P Murrah Federal Building on the 19th April 1995 remains the deadliest act of domestic terrorism in the country’s history and has left a dark legacy indeed.

19 April 1995: a grisly scene of destruction in Oklahoma City

Gulf War veteran Timothy McVeigh, aided by accomplice Terry Nichols, detonated a truck bomb filled with home-made explosives in a deliberate attack against the Federal government, who they claimed were an oppressive force overstepping their remit, particularly in relation to the Ruby Ridge incident and the Waco siege. The act made the Unabomber look tame in comparison.

Although McVeigh was executed in 2001, he has become a celebrity of anti-government extremists (particularly on the political right), aided by a rife conspiracy theory narrative relating to the bombing. There are persisting claims that the government of Bill Clinton was aware the attack was going to happen and chose not to act to ensure the smooth passage of new anti-terrorism legislation. Worse still, some claim the government was behind the bombing as a way of discrediting the Militia Movement that was building momentum in the USA at the time, a movement McVeigh was linked to.

The Militia Movement in America is far from dead: many are preparing for war and McVeigh is an inspiration to them

Whilst any credible analyst will refute the conspiracy theories, they will retain currency amongst those sympathising with McVeigh’s motives and actions, even sowing seeds of doubt in more ‘rational’ minds. With anti-government sentiment fairly strong in America today – ironically aided by the current anti-political president Donald Trump – it is far from inconceivable that such an awful tragedy will occur again.

As the frequent mass shootings in North America attest to, there are plenty of motivated people willing to carry out atrocities in the spirit of some warped ideology. This is not constrained to a particular wing of the political spectrum either, despite the propensity for mainstream media to decry the ‘nationalist right’. Government distrust can motivate extremists of all persuasions, and those that peddle conspiracy theories are playing into the hands of individuals with predisposed mindsets to acting on perceived government abuses.

Another of the most notorious acts of domestic violence in 20th century America also occurred in Oklahoma; the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921. After a young black man was accused of assaulting a white girl of seventeen, a confrontation between white and black groups at the local courthouse resulted in 10 whites being shot dead (in addition to 2 blacks).

A white mob subsequently went on a rampage through the city’s wealthiest black neighbourhood, looting, burning and killing as they went. Private aircraft were even requisitioned, from which attackers fired rifles and dropped explosives on the helpless black citizens. A 2001 government report confirmed suspicions at the time that law enforcement was likely involved in the atrocity. Estimates of numbers killed ranges widely, from 36 up to 300.

A black residential block burned to the ground

This frightening rampage warrants inclusion on any list of domestic terrorism and what it highlighted in terms of racial relations in 1921 bears resemblance to the situation today. Racial divisions characterise most large American cities, not just between blacks and whites but also Hispanics, who are set to become a majority of the population by 2050.

Incendiary acts by law enforcement officers and community leaders, not to mention crass comments by President Trump, have accentuated a divide long instilled between communities for economic, social and cultural reasons. With the ridiculous proliferation of handguns and other weapons across America it is, again, not inconceivable to think that such a racial clash could occur again.

The Pew Research Centre’s fairly damning findings in 2019

In the wake of 9/11 it is perfectly understandable why so many people have a pre-occupation with foreign terrorist acts on American soil and the necessary vigilance and security must undoubtedly be maintained to prevent a repeat of that terrible day (mercifully it has so far).

But reality dictates that in America an act of domestic terrorism is far more likely to cause mass devastation on a level similar to 9/11 and the Oklahoma City bombing than an act of international terrorism. Underlying concerns regarding extreme political and anti-government sentiment remain tangible and unchanged since 1995, perhaps even exacerbated by the current president and his media spokespeople.

Likewise it would be foolish to think that a repeat of the Tulsa Race Massacre was impossible even a century after its occurrence. The coronavirus pandemic has quietened talks of racial tension in the USA but it has been a constant feature of the Trump presidency and, in truth, in the decades before. With the economic and political fallout from Covid-19 still to be determined, there is every chance that racism will increase, particularly if one race or ethnic group is deemed to have ‘done better’ or ‘less badly’ in the current tricky climate, or perhaps feels alienated by the government response.

Demographic regression is something that has been talked about since Trump ascended to the presidency. But how much progress has America made in addressing persisting social issues and discrediting anti-government conspiracy theories capable of inspiring acts of the fiercest terror? A period of introspection is undoubtedly required and that first necessitates a White House administration willing to enforce one.

One thing that shouldn’t be forgotten, however, is the phenomenal collective response of all Oklahomans to the 1995 bombing. In this instance, a community united in grief to rebuild a shattered city and to continually campaign for the brutal lessons of that day to be remembered by all. Let’s hope that 25 years on, people are listening.

The national memorial for the Oklahoma City bombing victims