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.

Kim and Putin Meet Amid Scenes Reminiscent of 1949

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and Russian President Vladimir Putin have met in an eagerly awaited summit near the city of Vladivostok. It is the first meeting between the two and follows the recent breakdown in talks between Kim and US President Donald Trump at their summit in Hanoi.

The early indications are that the meeting proceeded positively, with lots of friendly gesturing and declarations of mutual trust and support. Putin rather amusingly stated that “We need to restore the power of international law, to return to a state where international law, not the law of the strongest, determines the situation in the world”. Hypocritical yes…but pointedly aimed at Mr Trump nonetheless.

That the exchange was “very meaningful” – to use Kim’s phrase – is hardly surprising given how much is riding on the outcome.

North Korea needs economic relief, hampered as it is by international sanctions relating to its nuclear weapons programme.  For the Russians, it is another opportunity to undermine American prestige and take the lead in de-nuclearisation talks, something of significance to Moscow given the country’s shared border with North Korea.

North Korea and Russia share a short but significant border

Kim and his government have returned to a more bellicose stance in the wake of Hanoi, blaming the Americans (and particularly Secretary of State Mike Pompeo) for derailing talks, even though they offered little in the way of concessions themselves.  There is a degree of desperation – or at least hopefulness – in Kim’s visit to see Putin, with the stakes seemingly higher for him than his Russian counterpart.

To an extent, it is reminiscent of the meeting between Kim’s grandfather – North Korean founder Kim Il-sung – and Joseph Stalin in 1949 when the nascent communist state was feeling increasingly imperilled by the US-backed democratic government in South Korea.

Kim went to Stalin cap-in-hand and asked for assistance.  In a transcript of the official Soviet notes from the meeting, Stalin is apparently disinterested.  His responses are short, sometimes receptive other times dismissive.  He doesn’t seem to profess a great interest in supporting North Korea yet knows that as the leader of a new communist world he is somewhat duty bound.

Typical exchanges from the meeting are as follows:

Comrade Stalin says fine and asks in what amount they need credit.

Kim from 40 to 50 million American dollars.

Comrade Stalin – fine, what else?

Later we get:

Comrade Stalin asks in what currency they wish to receive credit.

Kim answers in American dollars.

Comrade Stalin answers that we do not now calculate in dollars but we calculate in rubles.

It’s clear who is in charge.

Putin is likely to be similarly lukewarm to the North Korean advances.  Russia has enough issues – both domestic and foreign – to consider without having to worry about North Korea.  Yet as the de facto lead (along with China) of the anti-America cabal in international politics, Moscow necessarily listens.

Of course, the true nature of Kim’s trip to Moscow in 1949 is obscured by the officially sanctioned notes. Stalin’s military and economic support ultimately gave Kim the confidence to invade his southern neighbours and push democracy on the Korean Peninsula to the brink of annihilation. Only a full-scale American invasion prevented the Seoul regime from collapsing.

Kim Il-sung with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai in 1958 – the North Koreans attempted to straddle the Sino-Soviet split when it came

Putin’s support – along with that of Chinese President Xi Jinping – may embolden Kim Jong-un to stay his own course, albeit within the constraints of sanctions.  Neither Putin nor Xi want a nuclearised Korean Peninsula but it is highly likely that they see such a scenario as preferable to a unified Korea under democratic leadership, backed by American military power on Asian soil.

Unlike Stalin, whose gambit in 1949 was free from nuclear implications and the ire of the UN Security Council, Putin must exercise caution.  It is therefore likely that the proclamations of the Vladivostok summit will be just that…kind words.

What material difference it will make to Kim Jong-un and North Korea is debatable and it leaves the young leader with a conundrum.  Does he back down to American demands in the hope of retaining a limited civilian nuclear capacity and sanctions relief?  Does he throw his lot in with China and Russia knowing that their end goal is not too dissimilar to that of the US?  Or does he chuck his cap at the lot of them and plough on with nuclear and missile development, hoping that the terrifying thought of nuclear Armageddon will weaken the resolve of the world powers?

Kim’s pursuit of a nuclear arsenal has won him an oversized seat at the negotiating table

With an impoverished populace that is gradually being exposed to the outside world through covert channels, and a vast military hierarchy that needs continually appeasing, Kim Jong-un’s next move is not as straightforward as that of his grandfather.

Breaching the 38th parallel in the future will have far more severe repercussions for both the North Korean regime and the world at large.