This article originally ran on 38 North on May 1, 2020.
Kim Jong Un has not been seen in public since April 11, feeding considerable speculation about his well-being and the future of the North Korean regime. Regardless of the rumors, recent events have exposed the fact that the outside world has given very little consideration to the matter of North Korean succession. Close examination reveals that Kim Jong Un's efforts to consolidate power and create decision space for himself as Supreme Leader also speak to the establishment of a continuity of governance plan. This may provide insight into what may happen should Kim Jong Un become incapacitated or die, now or in the future.
Does Kim Jong Un Have a Succession Plan?
There have been many takes over the past couple of weeks about who might seize control in North Korea in the event of Kim Jong Un's death or incapacitation. Yet, there is the less-explored issue of how power might be transferred from one leader to the next. Unlike the previous two turnovers of power, hereditary succession from father to son could not take place today. Kim Jong Un is rumored to have a son, but he would be much too young to possibly take over as Supreme Leader. Nor has there been a formal announcement of who might be next in line for the throne. Thus, without a clear heir, a continuity of governance plan would have to be constructed in the eventuality of Kim Jong Un becoming incapacitated or dying. But has Kim done this?
Any totalitarian leader must be careful about revealing too much about his plans for succession, so it is not surprising that we do not know about Kim Jong Un's succession plan. Still, there are signs that the regime is somewhat prepared for this eventuality. Derived from his long-standing efforts to build legitimacy and consolidate his power as Supreme Leader, it is likely that Kim has established some continuity of governance plan.
Since he first stepped onto the stage, Kim Jong Un has worked assiduously to earn his legitimacy as ruler. A third-generation leader, he lacked the political heft of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il and had to generate his credibility through his actions and the success of his policies. As such, Kim needed a regime whose key actors followed his guidance and would not interfere in politics.
For the first few years of his reign, there was no obvious plan for continuity. While consolidating his power, Kim needed to be careful not to upset the power dynamics inside the regime too quickly by creating a potential second center of power. Throughout his rule, Kim has consistently worked to eliminate potential claimants to the throne, such as Jang Song Thaek and Kim Jong Nam, as well as weaken the military's political influence, the major claimant of resources under Kim Jong Il. In 2017, Kim began the process of reining in the ability of the powerful Organizational Guidance Department to play politics inside the regime. These actions were clear components of his efforts to consolidate his own power.
At the same time, these measures also suggest that a continuity of governance plan has been taking shape. While curbing traditional power actors within the regime, Kim has also enhanced the power of the Kim family and his personal apparatus. This represents a fundamental rewiring of how power operates in his regime, as opposed to his father's. While the power of formal leaders, like Choe Ryong Hae and Ri Man Gon, has waned, the political power of Kim's sister, Kim Yo Jong, has grown. She has represented the Supreme Leader abroad, and has received political positions in the Politburo, North Korea's highest organ of power. In recent months, she has demonstrated her growing influence through providing guidance to the military and making public pronouncements on economic and security policy.
The systematic rise and positioning of Kim Yo Jong signals the development of a continuity of governance plan, although the details of this plan remain unclear. It could be grooming her to be Supreme Leader, or ensuring that she plays a prominent leadership role, perhaps as a regent. What is clear is that by virtue of the responsibilities her brother has granted her, she will have a seat at the table and is likely to be the person responsible for protecting the Kim family equities.
It is also likely, however, that this plan will require several more years to complete. If something were to befall Kim in the near future, key stakeholders in the regime would be forced to determine the fate of the country. They would, however, be constrained by the arrangements he has already made. The following is how we expect the transition of power might play out.
North Korean Continuity of Governance
If Kim Jong Un were to fall seriously ill or die, where it happens and who has situational awareness makes all the difference. If it were to occur in public, the fallout would be hard to control and a power struggle would likely be inevitable. If it were to occur in private, however, those around Kim could begin to make preparations. Only a limited circle of players around Kim would have initial knowledge of the situation. This inner circle begins with his personal security detail and the Kim family.
- The Sixth Bureau of the General Guard Command (GGC) is in charge of Kim's personal security. They would be the first to know if anything has gone amiss at his personal offices, his residences or during travel inside and outside the country. This bureau has the authority to countermand any orders provided by the GGC, including issuing orders for them to stand down. It also has ties to Kim Yo Jong in her capacity as a gatekeeper for the Supreme Leader.
- Key members of the Kim family, Kim Yo Jong and Ri Sol Ju, have daily contact and situational awareness of Kim Jong Un's whereabouts and movements, giving them great influence over how events unfold. Kim Yo Jong also has daily oversight of the Propaganda and Agitation Department, which controls the North Korean media. Other members of the Kim family, including Kim Pyong Il and Kim Jong Chol, would only have knowledge on an as-needed basis.
- Aides such as Choe Ryong Hae and Ri Man Gon would receive information on the Leader's movements from Kim’s personal secretariat. The Organizational Guidance Department (OGD) ties into Kim's personal office, most likely through Kim Yo Jong and Jo Yong Won, Chief of Kim's personal secretariat, both of whom are directly loyal to Kim Jong Un. If there were updates of Kim's health situation, the OGD would likely hear from Kim’s office and then be responsible for spreading it to the wider leadership.
- The military would not learn of Kim's health situation per se, although key command and control (C2) and information nodes would likely be activated early on to ensure a security lockdown and control of the armaments. The General Staff's Operations Bureau would be critical to ensuring command and control of the conventional forces. The Supreme Command would issue orders to the strategic forces.
- In the past year, the heads of the GGC and the Ministry of People's Security have been replaced, as have the leadership of the Central Committee departments that control the reserve forces, such as the Red Guard. All of these organs would be critical in maintaining public order.
- The counterintelligence forces inside the country, including the General Political Bureau, Ministry of State Security and the Military Security Command, would not necessarily have immediate knowledge of Kim's unfolding health situation, but all would be responsible for ensuring that the leadership remains loyal during the transition period. All three are currently headed by men with close ties to Kim Jong Un and the Kim family.
If the leader were merely incapacitated, the immediate, temporary structure would likely be led by a small group of family and close aides, who would make decisions along established lines, maintaining the status quo. This small collective would carry out the day-to-day affairs of the regime, not unlike the group that supported Kim Jong Il after his stroke in 2008.
If Kim Jong Un dies, however, the situation would become much more precarious. An initial leadership group would likely be set up that includes those above, as well as members from the Party, military and internal security. Whether someone like Kim Yo Jong would sit atop this structure or would assume the role of Supreme Leader is unclear. It is also possible that some male member of the Kim family could be put forth as a figurehead for legitimacy purposes, instead of Kim Yo Jong.
The problem for any follow-on regime would be its lack of inherent legitimacy. The same challenge that defined Kim Jong Un's tenure for the first five years would resurface, but under crisis circumstances. Internal and external forces would exert great pressures on the new configuration of authority, which would face serious challenges to its unencumbered rule for much more than a few months. There is little doubt that a Congress or Conference of the Korea Workers' Party would be required to confer long-term legitimacy.
More Reading of Tea Leaves
In consolidating his power over the years, Kim's actions have directly and indirectly shaped the ability of his inner circle to manage such continuity of governance. There is no way to know exactly how these dynamics would play out but we can continue to monitor these organizational shifts inside the North Korean regime to be better prepared for the eventuality. Doing so will enable the Pyongyang-watching community to move beyond just speculating about Kim Jong Un's successor, and towards the consideration of realistic scenarios of succession.
Ken Gause directs the Adversary Analytics Program. He is CNA's senior foreign leadership analyst and has spent the last 20 years developing methodologies for examining leadership dynamics of hard-target, authoritarian regimes.
Elizabeth Yang is Research Assistant with CNA’s Adversary Analytics Program.
Chris Steinitz directs the North Korea program at CNA, focusing on North Korean leadership, strategic calculus, and military operations.
Ken Gause directs the Adversary Analytics Program. He is CNA's senior foreign leadership analyst and has spent the last 20 years developing methodologies for examining leadership dynamics of hard-target, authoritarian regimes.Elizabeth Yang is Research Assistant with CNA’s Adversary Analytics Program.