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“Plans are nothing, planning is everything.” - General Eisenhower
You may have missed it, but something - or someone - is missing in North Korea. Specifically, Kim Jong Un, North Korean despot, hereditary absolute ruler, and would be god-king hasn’t been seen for quite some time; speculation is that he’s either dead or in a coma.
Kim was last definitively seen April 11th, but since there have been reports that he’s in a persistent vegetative state, that he had a coronary “incident,” that there was an operation from which he hasn’t recovered, etc. Whether these are all related rumors, or whether there’s any truth to any of it, reporting does indicate that he isn't in the capital (Pyongyang) and that he missed major celebrations associated with the North Korean Army’s founding (April 25th) as well as several smaller, annual ceremonies.
Several other things are known: his train was in Wonsan (he routinely travels by train, seemingly his preferred means of travel); there has been no unusual activity detected (per the ROK government) in the last several days; and perhaps most importantly, there has been no unusual activity by the ROK government itself.
This last point is important. Despite the fact that we are, in truth, very closely allied with the ROK and share a great deal with each other, the reality is that the ROK understand what is going on in North Korea better than we ever will. And we shouldn’t ever doubt that they’ve sources of intelligence that we don’t.
It’s true that there’s a combined Operations Plan that has been drafted by the US and ROK Combined Forces Command - over the course of several decades - that is directly focused on responses to a collapsing North Korean regime. But there are a host of issues that need to be addressed before this OPLAN - or any plan - is executed.
Which brings us back to General Eisenhower; anyone who has ever been involved in detailed planning of a major operation (of any kind) is well aware that no plan is ever executed as written. The real world, and real people, change things, starting immediately. Eisenhower knew that. Arguably, he knew this better than just about anyone else; Eisenhower over the years developed into perhaps the best planner the US created in the last 100 years or more, as well as our best strategic thinker. But the effort that goes into thinking through each step of a plan informs and educates those doing the planning. They become familiar with what might be done, and what might not, what options look good but have fundamental flaws and which look bad but might fit certain scenarios.
Which is another way of saying there are a host of things that could be done and that they’ve been thought out by planners - in the event there’s a regime collapse in Pyongyang as the result of the - possible - death of Kim Jong Un. Would it go smoothly? No. But there are options that would address many of the issues, and there are smart folks in Seoul - ROK and US folks - who would figure out solutions based on what they know from their detailed studies during the planning.
That said, what might happen if Kim were to die or be clearly unable to rule?
While there are nearly an infinite number of possible outcomes, there are only a few paths that are likely. To begin there are only two options to start:
- Kim is alive and we go back to whatever you want to call normal in North Korea.
- Kim is either dead or so ill as to be irrelevant. Which leads to:
- His sister or uncle or some other member of the inner circle steps into the leadership role and there is a more or less smooth transfer of power.
- There is no transfer of power but a power struggle between various factions; this might take place “out of sight,” but results in another government. We’ll know about this when the new leader emerges. If the new leader has real control, the regime stabilizes and we have a new leader to deal with. This would require a new start in our dealing with Pyongyang, but would not necessarily further destabilize the peninsula.
- There isn’t a “smooth” transfer of power but a collapse of control and North Korea sinks into chaos.
This is the one to worry about. If there’s an internal power struggle and the new leader doesn’t gain real control, then the new government would collapse and again we sink into chaos; the same result as above, just takes a few more steps. What would then happen is really anyone’s guess because much would depend on what China does.
About that: it’s sometimes said China wants North Korea to gain control of the South and then China would have a client state in control and the Americans out of Asia proper. (Still in Japan, but no major ground forces, etc.)
That may not be true. Beijing is well aware of the history regarding their neighbor. In the past 1500 years Korea has been unified several times. And each time it has turned - rapidly - into a thorn in China’s side, literally and figuratively. Reunifying Korea therefore opens a potential problem on China’s doorstep. Now, the Koreans are focused on each other. But if they’re unified they might turn towards China and the result wouldn’t necessarily be good.
Further, there’s the real possibility that even if China backed North Korea in a war, they might lose the war. And that would leave North Korea - or the bulk of it, in the hands of the ROK, and the ROK’s ally, the US. And the last thing China wants is more US presence in Asia, particularly if it meant that the US and its ally might end up with a common border with China.
Said otherwise, China is content at this point to let this sleeping dog all alone; easier to try to outlast the US-ROK alliance and then work on South Korea separately.
What does that translate into if Kim is gone and the central government is falling apart? China might well simply flow in enough assets and forces to stabilize the country around some new leader, close the Korea - China border, and hope to form a new communist government around some new figure. It’s worth noting that no one is publicly reporting any unusual activity on China’s side of the China - Korea border. That said, I would suspect that right now there’s a vigorous effort by China to either assure themselves that Kim is alive, or if he’s dead or on the verge of death, to do what they can to manage a smooth transition of power to his sister or some other figure who they believe can pull the government together.
Be that as it may, while Beijing may have nefarious motives in much they are doing, the leadership is smart enough to know that a war in Korea isn’t one they want to start.
Finally, Kim may be dead, or he may be in a coma, though I would think we would see more activity by the ROK and Chine governments. It is worth speculating that perhaps they aren’t as competent as all that and they are also clueless. But if so, wouldn’t they be moving assets just in case? But, we also shouldn’t discount that Kim is just pulling our collective leg. He loves attention and everyone thinking about him. As Dave Maxwell - one of the smartest guys anywhere when it comes to Korea - says: “Kim may be sitting around sipping cognac and smoking cigars, chuckling at us.”
Meanwhile, the ROK government is not having fits. All in all, I think that’s a good sign.
About Pete O'Brien
Peter O’Brien has more than 30 years of successful leadership and planning experience in a wide range of organizations afloat and ashore on three continents. Mr. O’Brien’s Navy career included ten years at sea, more than a dozen years stationed overseas and multiple ...