The US is prepared to write the fate of North Korea after Kim Jong-Un alongside China, but there are challenges abound for Trump.
The world has once again faced the great cover-up that authoritarian regimes play whenever their leader falls ill. The supreme leader of the pariah state of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, has remained absent from public viewing for quite some time now and a South Korea-based news website reported recently that the leader in his mid-30s underwent a heart procedure.
The world started speculating over the leader’s health conditions and one American media report went on to say that his condition is grave. Speculations over Kim’s death only got fuelled though nobody still has any confirmed news that the diminutive leader is dead. Even Kim’s father — Kim Jong-Il — the second-generation leader of the dynasty, was believed to be dead without any public announcement in the late 2000s and a body double did the work for him.
Watch: Where is Kim Jong-Un?
This is a problem that closed nations and systems often display. Since there is no democratic procedure to determine the chain of a successor, such regimes fear an implosion and external challenges surfacing if their deified leader suddenly vanishes. There, the absence of freedom of expression comes in handy. These states resort to lies, cover-ups, body doubles, etc. to keep the system running.
With North Korea, a post-Kim Jong-un scenario was always going to be challenging but given the man is/was only in his 30s, observers thought age was on his side. But with Kim’s health conditions coming under scrutiny, the pundits of international relations and strategic affairs have started wondering what if the man is really dead? Or even if he has become unable to rule ever again? Will a rudderless North Korea be a boon or bane for the Far East?
North Korea’s future post the Kim Jong-Un era
This question invariably brings the focus on two powers — the United States and China. The former has traditionally been a foe of North Korea while China is its only ally in the region which is otherwise hostile to Pyongyang. If Kim is history and North Korea collapses, how would these two powers tackle the situation?
It is far easier to assess China’s role vis-a-vis North Korea in post-Kim days. Beijing has always been the hermit kingdom’s elder brother which has defended it over the decades against the designs of the liberal alliance of the US, South Korea, and Japan.
Watch: China sent medical experts to advise on Kim
Though the nuclear ambitions of Kim over the last few years saw the tested relationship between the two neighbors taking a hit for Beijing could sense the trouble the North Korean dictator’s over ambitions to go nuclear could cause its own interests in the region. There were instances when the US and NK engaged in verbal battles over the latter’s unrestrained nuclear experiments.
For China, a conflict in the region would only see North Korea collapse which would not only see the buffer between itself and the liberal foes disintegrate but also cause a massive influx of people into its own territory. For Beijing, it was never a desirable situation.
Understanding the Trump-Kim Relationship
In 2018, Kim displayed a U-turn in his behavior to call for a reconciliation with the liberal foes like South Korea and the US, and China’s tacit role in making that happen was not overlooked by the experts. Kim himself made a number of trips to China before his path-breaking meetings with the presidents of South Korea and America. Even Kim made his trip to Singapore to meet President Donald Trump in June 2018 on a Chinese aircraft.
But the task gets more complicated when one tries to analyze how Trump could see the post-Kim North Korea if the situation indeed becomes so. President Trump has a unique record of siding with the world’s dictators while alienating the US’ traditional allies. The president, who had attacked Kim by coining terms like “rocket man” in 2017, took a complete U-turn by the time he met the dictator in 2018 and 2019.
Though those meetings produced little changes on the ground, Trump grew an admiration for Kim and he reiterated it every time he got to speak on the North Korean leader, despite the horrific treatment his regime meted out to Otto Warmbier, an American college-goer who was arrested by the North Korean police on charges of subversion and died soon after he returned to the US after almost a year and a half. The American media also expressed its disgust with the president for speaking favorably about the ruthless dictator and in a way, praised the way in which he ruled with an iron fist, eliminating even his relatives who he deemed threatening.
Trump’s admiration for the dictators emerges from the fact that he himself cares little about democratic norms and a free society. The man makes it amply evident that he doesn’t like to be questioned, just as the dictators do because he has no comprehensive grip on the affairs that he is leading.
Trump tries to convince his constituencies that he is being made a victim by the media, opposition, and intelligentsia, and more than elections, he believes in tantrums as public gesturing as means to secure his stay in power. These traits do not make the incumbent too different from whimsical dictators around the world who require no moral compass to fathom their authorities.
Three challenges for Trump if Kim becomes history
If such a president meets a situation where there is no Kim in North Korea, how would he react?
The first possible outcome of such a situation is that Trump’s gap with the liberal West will widen. While most of the developed nations will not be too displeased if Kim falls, Trump will be sad. He will prioritize his personal equation with Kim over the US’ foreign policy moves over Pyongyang. He has already refused to believe the reports about Kim’s health. Trump always puts his personalized relations with other leaders above the state policy and the exit of Kim would only dampen his short-term visions of providing photo-ops at the summits or other meetings that otherwise have not produced anything substantial.
Secondly, if Kim is there no more, the Trump administration would have to fall back on China to handle North Korean affairs because there is no alternative leadership. Taking North Korea the way of post-Saddam Hussain Iraq or post-Muammar Gaddafi Libya will not be easy for the US since that country is located next to China. While Washington will face logistical challenges, Beijing will also not want the Americans to set up another foothold near its borders. Moreover, with the US and China locking horns over some serious issues like the trade war and coronavirus outbreak at the moment, a cooperative equation over North Korea might not be too easy to materialize.
A third challenge that Trump could face if North Korea sees a post-Kim leadership is the sister of the leader, Kim Yo Jong. The 32-year-old woman, who is also a respected figure in the pariah state, is no stranger to Trump and she, in fact, played a key role in the improvement of relations between her brother and the American president. It is being reported in the media that Kim Yo Jong’s terms with Trump are good.
But Kim Yo Jong has also shown traits that she is as determinant as the dynasty’s male members and as a leader, she would not give up North Korea’s international ambitions. Trump has so much favored male dictators and given his less-than-decent takes on women, it will be interesting to see how he deals with a woman dictator while aspiring to continue with the goodwill that he has with Kim Jong-Un.