A coup in North Korea could be worse than the status quo


The devil we (kinda) know is taking a few baby steps in the right direction

By Patrick Vaillancourt, Senior Columnist

It’s not the first time a North Korean leader has gone unseen for a prolonged period, but in the ongoing disappearance of 31-year-old Kim Jong-un, it’s raising eyebrows around the world.

The “Supreme Leader” of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) was last seen on September 3, when he attended a concert in Pyongyang.

There is no shortage of theories that attempt to explain Kim’s disappearance: some say he’s too ill; others say he’s dead or in prison. No one can truly be sure, but there are some telling signs, which may lead people to believe that there is, in fact, a coup d’état taking place in North Korea.

Since the Korean War ended in 1953, the world has paid little attention to North Korea. Yes, belligerent acts in the DPRK have been the subject of numerous United Nations’ resolutions and worldwide condemnation, but for the most part, we’ve let what happens in North Korea’s political landscape play out without intervention.

If there truly is a coup underway, the world may now be wishing it had done something, understanding that if the dynasty falls, there’s a high probability that whomever takes the reigns in North Korea will plot a path south and to war.

Kim Jong-un leads a regime that should be dragged before the International Criminal Court to answer for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of counts of crimes against humanity. The Supreme Leader has not done much (as far as we know) in terms of dismantling political prison camps or the random summary executions of its people. Kim is also the leader of the most secretive, impoverished, and repressive country in the world. His record is evidently not great.

All of that notwithstanding, Kim has done one thing that is a clear break from his father’s style of governing. While Kim Jong-il relished the role of commander of the military, which was evident by routine military inspections, Kim Jong-un’s industrial and commercial inspections makes him appear more concerned about the overall economy. That’s the younger Kim’s redeeming quality; the one thing the rest of the world can look to and say he’s trying to change things.

It also makes him vulnerable among the elites of his country, who are predominantly military officers. If the military isn’t getting the attention it expected from the son of Kim Jong-il, they may be thinking about changing the leader, which creates a power vacuum with no heir apparent. More often than not—as has been proven through thousands of years of history—when no one is clear on who is in charge, it leads to civil war.

While much of the information we have on the events in North Korea comes from defectors and spies, it’s clear that there is a conflict in the higher ranks of the DPRK’s governance apparatus. It’s economic versus military interests; it’s pitting Kim Jong-un’s plans for the country against his father’s legacy.

The only thing keeping North Korea calm is that for the last six decades, the machinery of North Korea’s government has focused on one family, the Kim family. The general public has been taught to regard Kim Jong-un, his father, and his grandfather, as benevolent men with divine gifts and talents. The military cannot simply decide to take up arms against Kim without fearing a backlash from the general population. On the other hand, how long will the military brass continue to tolerate Kim? He can’t stay out of sight forever.

So we come back to civil war—in a nuclear-armed North Korea.

Perhaps the rest of the world should take a moment, stop mocking the regime we know about and think about the possible scenarios if Kim were to be chased from power.