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What if North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-Un suddenly dies? Who takes charge?

PortandTerminal.com, April 22, 2020

The US is monitoring intelligence that suggests North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, is in grave danger after undergoing a previous surgery. The inevitable question is being raised over who would take control of the country if he were to suddenly die.

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA – North Korean state media on Wednesday made no mention of leader Kim Jong Un’s health or whereabouts, a day after intense international speculation over his health was sparked by media reports he was gravely ill after a cardiovascular procedure.

Korean women in uniform marching
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.

Is he as gravely ill as some reports suggest?

Kim has been out of the public eye for extended periods in the past, and North Korea’s secretive nature allows few outsiders to assert confidently whether he might be unwell, let alone on his death-bed. Still, questions about the North’s political future are likely to grow if he fails to attend upcoming public events.

We do know that by any measure, the young leader who is just 36 years old, is not in good health. In September 2015, the South Korean government commented that Kim appeared to have gained 65 lb in body fat over the previous five years, reaching a total estimated body weight of 290 lb. That would give him a BMI over 45 – or extremely obese. He is also a heavy smoker.

According to CNN, the US is monitoring intelligence that suggests North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, is in grave danger after undergoing a previous surgery, according to a US official with direct knowledge.

Who would take over if Kim were to suddenly die?

Three Asian leaders of North Korea
Only one family has ruled North Korea since it was founded in 1948

Kim is the third generation of his family to rule North Korea, and a strong personality cult has been built around him, his father and grandfather. 

While North Korea’s government is not constitutionally a hereditary dictatorship, but it is a de facto one. Its constitution defines the country as “a dictatorship of people’s democracy”. It just so happens that since it was founded in 1948, it has been ruled by only one family.

If Kim Jong Un dies of natural causes, tradition would point to one of his children — especially a son — to take his place. If he were to be assassinated that, of course, would be a whole different kettle of fish.

While there are rumours that Kim has children, if he were to die of natural causes right at this moment, they would be far too young to inherit his position.

So if Kim Jong-un dies or is disabled anytime soon, the DPRK will have its first open contest for power in 72 years. And some say that this would be the first transition in which a family member was unlikely to triumph.

Succession Candidates

Woman in white dress standing by man in striped suit
Ri Sol-Ju, the wife of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, exercises no political power in North Korea and is not considered a possible successor to her husband

The Kim family’s mythical “Paektu” bloodline, named after the highest peak on the Korean Peninsula, is said to give only direct family members the right to rule the nation. That rules out Kim’s wife from the picture as a takeover candidate and in any case, she exercises no political power.

Seated Asian man in dark suit. Standing Asian woman in blue suit holding folder under her arm.
Kim Yo Jong, shown here on the right, is the current leader’s sister and a possible candidate to take over were he to die.

Some say that Kim’s younger sister, senior ruling party official Kim Yo Jong, is the most likely candidate to step in if her brother is gravely ill, incapacitated or dies. She plays an important role in the party already and was recently promoted.

“Among the North’s power elite, Kim Yo Jong has the highest chance to inherit power, and I think that possibility is more than 90 per cent,” said analyst Cheong Seong Chang at the private Sejong Institute in South Korea.

“North Korea is like a dynasty, and we can view the Paektu descent as royal blood so it’s unlikely for anyone to raise any issue over Kim Yo Jong taking power.”

Cheong Seong Chang , Sejong Institute in South Korea

Who is Kim Yo Jong?

Smiling asian woman. Flag out of focus in background
File Photo: Kim Yo Jong

Kim Yo Jong is the youngest daughter of former supreme leader Kim Jong-il.  She and her brother, current leader Kim Jong-un, are said to have a close relationship, due to shared isolated years while studying together in Switzerland from 1996 to 2000, and in North Korea. She is believed to have studied at the Kim Il-sung Military University after her return from Switzerland. She also studied computer science at Kim Il-sung University.

Four seated people wearing winter coats. Two men. Two women. One man wearing ski jacket.
Kim Yo-jong, top right, sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, sits alongside Kim Yong-nam, president of the Presidium of North Korean Parliament, and behind U.S. Vice President Mike Pence as she watches the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang-gun, South Korea.
Pool/Getty Images

Believed to be in her early 30s, Kim Yo Jong is in charge of North Korea’s propaganda affairs, and this month was made an alternate member of the powerful Politburo.

She has frequently appeared with her brother at public activities, standing out among elderly male officials. She accompanied Kim Jong Un on his high-stakes summits with United States President Donald Trump and other world leaders. Her proximity to him during those summits led many outsiders to believe she’s essentially North Korea’s No. 2 official.

Kim Yo Jong shown here with her brother, current leader Kim Jong Un and three other senior officials
Kim Yo Jong shown here with her brother, current leader Kim Jong Un and three other senior officials

Her power though appears purely derivative, completely dependent on her brother. If he dies, some say there is no reason to believe that she can grab control, especially given the enduring sexism of North Korean politics. 

“I think the basic assumption would be that maybe it would be someone in the family” to replace Kim Jong Un, US national security adviser Robert O’Brien told reporters yesterday. “But again, it’s too early to talk about that because we just don’t know, you know, what condition Chairman Kim is in and we’ll have to see how it plays out.”

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