In the Machiavellian world of geopolitics, governments and intelligence agencies must consider all possibilities in any given scenario.
In the case of Kim Jong-un and his highly secretive regime, they include his little-known sister Kim Yo Jong taking the reins of power, or even a military struggle that draws in the US, China and even Australia, says ANU professor and intelligence expert John Blaxland.
Prof Blaxland is the author of In From the Cold: Reflections on Australia’s Korean War and is working on a book detailing the history of Australia’s top spy agency, the National Signals Directorate.
He says there is good reason why intelligence agencies will be scrambling to learn the status of Kim Jong-un after reports that he was seriously ill.
Reports Tuesday that the North Korean leader Kim Jong-un is unwell following surgery triggered speculation about the future of the dictator, and the so-called Hermit Kingdom he leads.
The reports, which initially emanated from a South Korean website and then US outlet CNN, have not been confirmed.
Chinese and South Korean officials have sought to throw cold water on the notion that Kim Jong-un is gravely ill, suggesting reports of his incapacity might be premature.
“But they may not be (premature), this is the thing,” Prof Blaxland told Yahoo News Australia.
When his father Kim Jong-il died of heart complications, “the announcement was held for days until they got their act sorted out,” he said.
“The other thought is this is some kind of ruse to flush out would-be betrayers or provoke some sort of reaction.”
Kim Jong-un was said to be receiving treatment after undergoing a cardiovascular procedure earlier this month, according to Daily NK, a speciality website run mostly by North Korean defectors.
“The primary source that came out with this is associated with North Korea defectors. They, I think, are pretty well plugged in to reliable sources of information. That gives me a sense there is something to this story, there is some substance here,” Prof Blaxland said.
Although thought to be just 36, Kim Jong-un is a smoker, considered obese and has congenital heart problems.
“There could be complications of a poor surgery, poor medical treatment,” Prof Blaxland.
And all that is on top of the element of coronavirus.
“North Korea has been a completely closed book, but it’s highly likely they’ve got a problem on that front.”
Until the leader is seen in pubic, speculation will likely continue about his health and what could ultimately happen when the North Korean dictator does fall.
Little-known sister could be likely successor
Unsurprisingly, the unconfirmed reports triggered speculation about what could happen in North Korea because there is no clear succession plan in the event of KimJong-un’s demise.
Perhaps the top candidate today to take over is his sister Kim Yo Jong who was promoted to the powerful political bureau of the ruling Workers Party in 2017, putting her closer to the centre of the leadership.
What the West knows about her is “very, very limited,” Prof Blaxland said.
She went to Seoul for the Winter Olympics, she accompanied Kim Jong-un on visits to Beijing to see Chinese president Xi Ji Ping and on his visits to see US president Donald Trump.
“He [Kim Jong-un] clearly trusts her and they’re close,” he said. “The thing is though it’s a patriarchal society and he has not appointed a designated successor.”
Members from North Korea’s intelligence and military elites might not appreciate her seizing the leadership of the nuclear-armed nation. “If the military and security apparatus can’t bring themselves to be that enlightened, or not misogynist ... there are others,” Prof Blaxland said.
As for those others who could potentially take over, there’s a couple of clear contenders. Given the cult of personality dynasty that continues to rule the country, it’s likely to be a member of the family.
There is the “guitar-playing brother of Kim Jong-un who has shown little interest in politics”.
Then there is the leader’s nephew, who is the son of the dictator’s half-brother Kim Jong-nam who was killed in a brazen airport assassination in 2017 when two reportedly unwitting women suffocated him with a deadly nerve agent, making headlines around the world.
There is also Kim Jong-un’s 10-year-old son. It’s possible senior military and intelligence people one day appoint a placeholder leader until the boy is old enough to take over.
“Power tastes good though,” Prof Blaxland admitted. “People in power usually don’t like to relinquish it.”
Signals, secrecy and power struggles
Despite America’s enormous investment in its intelligence infrastructure, no one has a really good grip on what on earth is going on behind the scenes, Prof Blaxland said.
“They are extremely savvy … they are all over signal intelligence counter measures,” he said of the North Korean government.
That makes it extremely difficult for foreign intelligence agencies to get a clear picture of what is going on inside the country and its leadership circles.
Long-time military journalist Howard Altman argued Tuesday that the sudden loss of Kim Jong-un could destabilise the region, create a massive refugee flow and force the US, South Korea and possibly other regional allies to act.
Australia could be dragged into conflict if Korean peninsula destabilises
Prof Blaxland says such a scenario is well within the realms of possibility.
“If there is a certain unravelling of Kim Jong-un’s order ... it’s not unimaginable,” he said. If Kim Jong-un’s sister did seek power but was thwarted by senior military elites, “it could lead to a potential implosion that would draw in the United States and South Korea, possibly China and possibly the United Nations,” he told Yahoo News Australia.
Australia, he points out, is obligated under UN command which could see us called on to contribute if such a scenario ever played out.
Given the incredibly opaque nature of the isolated country, it all remains “informed speculation,” Prof Blaxland said. But it’s scenarios like that which mean intelligence agencies in South Korea, China, the US and even Australia will be watching and listening very closely in the coming days and weeks.
The North Korean leader also disappeared from the public eye for more than a month in 2014, which at the time prompted speculation about his health.
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