Kim Jong Un’s public appearance on June 5 made international waves due to his his apparent weight loss. Given Kim’s documented history of health issues, there is consistent speculation about how long he might be able to lead North Korea. This has prompted a range of hypotheses about what the DPRK would look like if Kim was rendered incapable of leading the nation.
If Kim vacated his role today, what kind of regime could succeed him? North Korea’s hereditary system of leadership dictates that the only feasible candidate to replace Kim Jong Un would be his younger sister, Kim Yo Jong. This reality begs the question: can Kim Yo Jong truly assume power at this current juncture?
If Kim departs unexpectedly, we will witness the disintegration of the DPRK. For Kim Yo Jong to secure her legitimacy as the new ruler, she would have to draw power from North Korea’s small coalition government while elevating the living standards of the general population. This, however, is extremely unlikely given the immense economic obstacles that North Korea faces, in tandem with Kim Jong Un’s ideological position as the Mount Paektu-descended executor of the ideology of juche. To ensure North Korea’s continued existence beyond Chairman Kim, he must pursue radical economic and ideological reform.
Kim Yo Jong cannot repeat her brother’s ascent to power. Under the current system, a North Korean leader must be a direct descendant of the Kim dynasty (which she is); successfully execute the fulfillment of juche (which she cannot); and have the political acumen to establish absolute authority (which is unproven, and unlikely).
Under the dual policy of byungjin, Kim Jong Un consolidated the military’s support as a personal political base for his power through the success of the nuclear weapons program. While alleviating a sagging economy by allowing marketization from below, Kim increased the living standards of North Koreans by virtue of benign neglect. For Kim Yo Jong’s potential succession, she cannot use the same means as Kim Jong Un to solidify her legitimacy, as their novelty and effectiveness have already begun to dwindle under her brother’s rule. At the same time, these short-term solutions have simultaneously weakened the Kim regime’s fundamental sources of legitimacy.
Since the founding of the DPRK under Kim Il Sung, North Korean leaders’ legitimacy has come from being the executors of juche, which perpetuates a hostile foreign policy based on class struggle. Yet, Kim Il Sung’s halo will likely not protect his heirs’ seat beyond the third generation. Without the legacy of her grandfather, Kim Yo Jong cannot secure legitimacy as a successor of the official guiding ideology. Without an institution-based system of governance to ensure the DPRK’s survival, a lack of public support from the people exacerbates this dynastical impasse. At the same time, she cannot introduce an alternative source of legitimacy, such as market-oriented economic reform, in an ideological paradigm that demands brinkmanship and external hostility.
In the last four years, the DPRK has been importing at a steep deficit, which was initially contained through expanding the state’s foreign reserve funds. With these foreign reserves depleted, North Korea’s gross trade will steadily evaporate. Unable to import the raw materials necessary for industry and daily life, North Korea’s economy will continue to decay.
As long as North Korea cannot trade due to U.N. sanctions, Kim Yo Jong would be unable to raise enough revenue for the state’s expenditures, in turn preventing her from making any substantial economic gains. Essentially, in our hypothetical scenario, Kim Yo Jong would be inheriting a distorted state, without adequate foreign reserve funds and treasury for her to give a hopeful economic outlook to the North Korean people in order to ingrain her authority. Moreover, the economic reform necessary to qualify Kim Yo Jong’s authority cannot be established under Pyongyang’s brinkmanship and hostile ideology, which itself has only inflamed economic sanctions.
Taking into account the feebleness of the rationing and distributing system, Kim Yo Jong’s only remaining viable tools to survive would consist of terror and indoctrination, which Kim Jong Un used ruthlessly from 2012 to 2016 to execute 1,300 and purge 2,600 North Koreans as alleged “threats” to his rule. While both means of control have been effectively used since the DPRK’s inception, Kim Yo Jong would not be able to sustain her rule through these means alone.
With the diminishing protection of the Kim family legacy, waning legitimacy of the regime from the contradictions between ideology and prevailing reality, weakened brinkmanship tactics with the prospect of greater sanctions, a gutted rationing system, a shadow economy largely outside of the state’s control, and increasing inroads of uncensored information to North Korean citizens, North Korea is headed toward disintegration, whether Kim Jong Un is ruling it or not. Chairman Kim, and the DPRK itself, are living on borrowed time.
To ensure the survival of North Korea, Kim Jong Un must trade his nuclear arsenal for economic prosperity and peace. By creating a viable economic development plan that guides economic modernization over a 10 year period, Kim can ensure the sovereignty of North Korea during and after his rule. The blueprint must consist of human resources development, viable labor markets, the legalization of free enterprise, increased foreign investment, and the introduction of private property rights. An economic development fund as part of a package deal with China, Russia, Japan, the United States, and South Korea could be issued annually in accordance with North Korea’s successful fulfillment of its denuclearization obligations. By relinquishing juche, and replacing his ruling legitimacy with an inclusive economic system focused on the economic wellbeing of the people, Kim Jong Un will cement his legacy and the survival of the DPRK, with the popular support of the 25 million citizens of North Korea.