Rumours have been circulating that Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s leader, is in a permanent vegetative state. People have speculated as to whether he has been in a coma for months or longer, or if he is instead governing from the shadows. In either case, the situation has caused widespread speculation about the future of North Korea.
Kim Jong-un first rose to power in 2011 and has led a ‘leadership by terror’. He has implemented economic policies that have led to economic debate and international sanctions, leading to strained relationships with North Korea’s neighbours and the wider international community. Public opinion has not been good as Kim Jong-un’s policies have often been seen as oppressive and authoritarian.
Some experts argue that North Korea’s government is controlled by a must-obey system, meaning Kim Jong-un’s position is unassailable and he holds immense power in the country. Others, however, contend that this is not the case; they suggest that the nation’s power structure is much more complex and that the real authority is held by a large number of powerful individuals, not just one. This means that, even if Kim Jong-un were in a coma, his loss of power may not have as great an effect on the nation as is thought.
It is believed that there are many senior military officers in North Korea who could potentially fill the vacuum should Kim Jong-un succumb to an illness and that the nation’s government is resilient enough to endure the impact. There are also many who argue that the transition would be relatively seamless- the current system is designed to protect the power structure, even if the leader falls ill or dies.
Despite the speculation, there is still no concrete evidence as to what condition Kim Jong-un is in. North Korea is notoriously secretive and there have been no public announcements about the situation. This has not stopped rumours from swirling and speculation from continuing- many sources from inside the country claim that Kim Jong-un has suffered a stroke or some kind of brain injury. Others claim it is a hoax and he is actually still in control, but this is yet to be confirmed.
Experts agree that, regardless of the outcome of Kim Jong-un’s health, the underlying issues of poverty, economic stagnation, and political and social repression will remain in North Korea. In the absence of Kim Jong-un, it is difficult to tell who will fill his shoes and ensure stability, but all parties agree that it is a precarious situation, and one that should be monitored closely.
How a transition of power would happen if North Korea were to undergo a crisis such as Kim Jong-un’s medical condition is still widely unknown. It is widely speculated that there would be no radical shift in policy, as the country is run by a tightly controlled single-party system and any change of power would be limited to the internal politics of the party. In such a scenario, the current government bodies, state institutions, and military would stay in place in order for a more seamless transition.
The transition of power could, however, create some domestic unrest, as Kim Jong-un’s health is a very sensitive issue for the North Korean people. They have grown to rely on the leader for direction and security and the prospect of a leadership void could cause people to grow suspicious and fearful of their government.
The international community is also closely watching the situation, concerned that they may be facing another power vacuum in Northeast Asia as a result of Kim Jong-un’s potential health issues. This could lead to increased tensions between North Korea and its neighbours, as well as further international sanctions.
North Korean People’s Reaction
It is largely unknown how the North Korean people would react to the news of Kim Jong-un’s medical condition. The country is tightly controlled by the party and any public expression of opinions is heavily discouraged. The authorities have been known to react very harshly to any form of dissent, so it is possible that the news of Kim Jong-un’s health would be suppressed.
However, it is likely that there will be a sense of unease within North Korea as people are uncertain how their leader’s medical condition would affect the future of the country. There is growing frustration with the nation’s economic policies and the lack of progress made in living standards, so it is likely that any news of Kim Jong-un’s medical condition would be met with trepidation. Some reports suggest that there may even be underground chatter among North Koreans expressing concern over the situation.
International Community’s Reaction
In an attempt to ascertain Kim Jong-un’s health, there have been a number of attempts by international bodies to send medical teams to North Korea. The latest attempt, in March 2021, was deemed unsuccessful by the international community as the team was denied access to Kim Jong-un. This has led to further speculation as to the extent of the leader’s health.
The international community, however, has also expressed support for the North Korean people, as it is believed that any change in leadership could potentially have a destabilising effect on regional and global stability. Some neighbours of North Korea have called for “maximum prudence” in order to avoid confrontation, while others have expressed a desire to help facilitate a peaceful transition in the country.
It is clear that the situation in North Korea is fluid, and the international community will continue to closely monitor the situation in order to ensure that the wellbeing and safety of the North Korean people and its neighbours is not threatened.
North Korea is also known for its military strength, having a powerful force including nuclear weapons, numerous ballistic missiles and high-tech conventional weapons. With Kim Jong-un’s health uncertain, it is possible that his inner circle, who are the real decision-makers in the country, will leverage the military’s advantage to strengthen their position and influence on a national level.
Although the actual nuclear arsenal size is classified, estimates place the stockpile at an estimated 10 to 20 nuclear warheads, with the capability to add more depending on the regime’s needs. Analysts believe that the maintenance of a nuclear arsenal will be a priority for the North Korean power base no matter what happens to Kim Jong-un.
The nation’s conventional weapons technology is estimated to be the third most advanced in the world, with the ability to launch attack aircraft, warships, lights tanks, ballistic missiles and many other weapons systems, both within and beyond the borders of North Korea.
Despite the uncertainty surrounding the nation’s leader, it is clear that the North Korean military is well equipped and prepared to defend the country should the need arise, and it is likely that they will be the critical factor in any attempt to transition power in a peaceful manner.
Kim Jong-un’s health has had a far-reaching impact on the global political landscape. Many countries have expressed their concerns and sympathies for the people of North Korea, but have so far refrained from publicly intervening.
The United States, for example, has taken a measured stance, calling for the international community to come together to assist the North Korean people in any way that they can, while at the same time reiterating the importance of keeping all military and nuclear programs in check. This has been echoed by the other members of the United Nations Permanent Security Council.
At the same time, many countries have expressed the importance of maintaining international peace and order. This has seen Japan calling for ‘maximum prudence’ when it comes to North Korea, whilst China has urged all sides to seek a peaceful resolution to the situation.
It is clear that the international community remains wary of the situation in North Korea. As the country’s leader is hospitalised, it is likely that the situation will remain fluid until a clear path to a peaceful resolution can be found.