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.
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.
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.
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.