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Kim Jong Un's appearance put death rumors to rest. But the world was scared for good reason.

Hope is not a method in strategic planning, especially when formulating policies to deal with a regime that is armed with nuclear weapons.
Image: North Korean leader Kim Jong Un
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attends the completion of a fertilizer plant in a region north of the capital, Pyongyang, in an image released Saturday, May 2, 2020.KCNA / Reuters

The sudden disappearance of the young North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un in April caused worldwide speculation and consternation. Before seeming to resurface in state-sponsored media photos on Friday, Kim had not been seen since presiding over a meeting of the North Korean Politburo on April 11. He was conspicuously absent from the annual observance of his grandfather's birthday on April 15. The celebration, known as the "Day of the Sun," is the most important event in the North Korean political calendar.

With the leader missing, rumors concerning his health were rampant. There were reports that he was recovering from heart surgery at his compound in Wonsan, had contracted the coronavirus or was under quarantine despite reports in the North Korean media that there are no cases in the country. Others even said he died.

With the leader missing, rumors concerning his health were rampant. There were reports that he was recovering from heart surgery or was under quarantine.

His disappearance was real cause for concern, because there are so many questions about what would happen if he were to die or even fall seriously ill.

A sudden transition in the so-called Hermit Kingdom could result in massive insecurity on the Korean peninsula — or it could help smooth the way for reunification between North and South Korea. We just do not know, and therein lies the problem. Hope is not a method in strategic planning, especially when formulating policies to deal with a regime that is armed with nuclear weapons.

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Kim has disappeared in past, but it was surprising that he chose to be absent at a moment of significant international turmoil. Following a failed bid to negotiate a nuclear agreement with the Trump administration, and amid a global pandemic and rising concerns about food supplies in North Korea, world leaders are not in a particularly optimistic mood.

The very legitimacy of the North Korean state is derived from the mythical narrative that Kim Il Sung (founder of North Korea and young Kim's grandfather) was essentially a god, and his successors have continued the cult of personality. As Jieun Baek wrote recently in The National Interest, "North Korea without a successor from the Kim family is like worshippers going to church without a deity to worship." The importance of the Kim family bloodline is further enshrined in the DPRK Ten Principles for the Establishment of the One-Ideology System. Consequently, the hereditary nature of the regime over the past 70 years means internal stability is heavily reliant on a smooth succession to a new leader within the family.

As a result, Kim Yo Jong, Kim's sister, appears his most likely successor. He elevated her to vice director in the Party Central Committee, and she was a leading member of the North Korean delegation that attended the 2018 Winter Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea, and the nuclear summits with President Donald Trump. But is a heavily patriarchal society like North Korea ready for a female leader?

Kim's older brother is believed to still be living in North Korea but has not been seen publicly since 2015. He was also passed over for leadership by his father as "unfit." Kim's other brother, Kim Jong Nam, was assassinated in Malaysia in 2017. The only other close relative who would seem to have a chance at ascending to power is a half-uncle, Kim Pyong Il, but he only recently returned from diplomatic posts in eastern Europe and has no real power base. A group of North Korean power brokers led by Choe Ryong Hae (head of the Supreme People's Assembly and thus the nominal head of state) could also attempt to create a figurehead, which could lead to infighting.

The rise of any new leader(s) would still likely result in an internal purge. Five of the seven pallbearers at the funeral of Kim Jong Un's father disappeared or were executed or banished after Kim came to power. There's a reason that since World War II, no family dictatorship has ever managed to pass power for the third time. The most common characteristic is rapid and often unexpected collapse.

The sudden downfall of the Kim regime could result in massive instability and thousands if not millions of refugees, and it would be an international disaster. Even before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the estimated 10 million people in North Korea were in urgent need of food assistance. American sanctions have had a significant effect on food supplies.

Famine did not occur in 2019 because China and Russia provided massive food aid and agricultural support and ignored sanctions limits on oil exports to North Korea. It is likely that only about two-thirds of the population would have received even a subsistence level of food without this assistance. There have been reports of additional security being placed around key locations in Pyongyang and panic buying of necessities — though this could be due to the pandemic.

The U.S., South Korea, China, Russia and other countries would all be directly affected by such massive instability. They would need to rapidly establish a cordon sanitaire around North Korea to prevent nuclear materials or weapons from being sold to rogue actors or terrorist organizations. North Korea possesses active nuclear material in addition to its nuclear weapons stockpile, and it maintains 5,000 tons of chemical weapons and possibly biological toxins for military use. Western intelligence further believes there are dozens of nuclear sites and missile bases in North Korea that would have to be quickly secured.

As a result, the Chinese, U.S., and South Korean special operations forces all might try to execute their own national plans to seize North Korea's nuclear weapons, other weapons of mass destruction and associated material. Unfortunately, Beijing has resisted efforts to discuss such contingencies, raising the serious possibility of a U.S.-Chinese confrontation.

Furthermore, a larger military intervention by China cannot be discounted, and it might seek to undertake one as a U.N. "peacekeeping force." Beijing can react more quickly than the U.S., as it has much better intelligence, is physically much closer and could face less resistance from friendlier North Korean troops if there was large-scale unrest.

Another option would be a coordinated large-scale military intervention by the U.S. and South Korea. This would very likely result in direct conflict.

Another option would be a coordinated large-scale military intervention by the U.S. and South Korea. This would very likely result in direct conflict with significant elements of the North Korean military and the possibility of escalation to the use of weapons of mass destruction. Such an operation would further be complicated by the Trump administration's postponement or cancellation of major joint military exercises with South Korea since 2018, and both U.S. aircraft carriers dedicated to the region are battling the coronavirus.

So how might a Trump administration beset by the coronavirus pandemic and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression react to a parallel global crisis? It is anyone's guess. Washington's ability to coordinate an international response is also problematic at best. U.S. relations with Beijing are at a low based on serious disagreements over trade, military operations in the South China Sea and the pandemic.

American relations with South Korea have been damaged by the Trump administration's failure to adequately consult Seoul over nuclear negotiations with North Korea and disagreements over financial support for the basing of U.S. forces on the peninsula.

But however Washington chose to play it, America's response to the end of the Kim regime would have a serious and long-term impact on U.S. policy in Asia. If the U.S. did not appear to support South Korea fully, other Asian allies might pursue alternative security arrangements or greater accommodation with China, weakening American influence in the region.

Winston Churchill once said the Soviet Union was "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma," and this is also true of North Korea. The disappearance of Kim Jong Un was scary precisely because it had so many possible internal and possibly external implications. And his reappearance should provide impetus for a more careful analysis of the implications of a North Korean regime implosion, as well as greater diplomatic efforts to plan a coordinated international response.