On March 18, 2022, Blue Glacier published a thought-provoking Red Team memorandum on what happens if North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un dies in 2022. This “out-of-the-box” analytic approach offers a thought-provoking viewpoint after Kim’s drastic, recent weight loss and his clear intent to test long-range missiles.
Blue Glacier’s Red Team memorandums are modeled after the Central Intelligence Agency’s Red Cell memorandums. This Blue Glacier effort follows Blue Glacier’s previous red team memo on the intersection of cybercrime, anti-vaccination militancy, and pandemic fatigue.
Nature and Nurture
Kim Jong Un’s father (Kim Jong Il), grandfather (Kim Il Sung), and half-brother (Kim Jong Nam) all had problems with heart disease. Kim Jong Un’s aunt (his father’s sister) reportedly also has heart problems. Kim, like his father, is known to drink, smoke, and eat to excess. Kim Jong Nam was also known to be smoker.
Genetics are known to explain up to 80% of the variation in body max index (BMI) and nicotine addiction, and various sources speculate Kim Jong Un suffers from diabetes, hypertension, hyperlipidemia, cardiovascular disease, thyroid issues, and gout, among other ailments. Despite his recent weight loss, Kim’s BMI of 40 means he has severe, or Class III, obesity.
Uneasy Lies The Head That Wears A Crown
Several real and perceived assassination attempts against Kim Jong Un and his father (some are listed in our Red Team memo) likely partially inform Kim’s understanding of threats to his power. Kim has killed even close family members–uncle Jang Song Thaek and half-brother Kim Jong Nam. Kim’s switch from his father’s “Military First” policy to his own “People’s First” policy has likely also created resentment in the military.
Timing is Everything
Kim Jong Il died young, denying his son Kim Jong Un the full grooming period that both men likely would have preferred. The father had 14 years of grooming after he was formally declared heir apparent. Kim Jong Un had been preparing to become supreme leader of North Korea for only three years when his father died in December 2011.
Looking for Mr. Right
Kim Jong Un’s own legitimacy is rooted in North Korean mythology and his own “Paektu bloodline” (Paektu is a still-active volcano on North Korea’s border with China). So, he has probably selected a successor from within his family. However, Kim’s eldest son will be only 11 or 12 years old if Kim dies in 2022.
Princess Regent in Training
The most visible, immediate family member in Kim Jong Un’s inner circle is his sister Kim Yo Jong. However, she’s likely being groomed to be regent for her nephew, rather than supreme leader, if Kim Jong Un does not live to oversee the transition himself.
She is thought to be married to Choe Song, a son of Kim Jong Un loyalist Choe Ryong Hae. She and her husband reportedly direct Office 38 which manages the ruling family’s finances, and Office 39 which uses investments, illegal arms sales, and illicit fundraising activities to fund rewards of cash and luxury items to favored government officials. Such a position gives Kim Yo Jung a powerful means to build the relationships and alliances she will need with the elite should she become regent–or desire to be supreme leader.
Waiting in the Wings
Kim Yo Jong is Kim Jong Un’s most likely candidate to serve as regent to his son, and she is also a candidate to succeed her brother. But without a respected male face to present to the hyper-traditional North Korean public, the Kim dynasty might not long outlast Kim Jong Un.
Our Red Team memo highlights a non-inclusive list of ruling elites able to become either co-regent or self-chosen successors to the Kim Jong Un in their own right.
Of these five officials, Choe Ryong Hae (72 years old), the father-in-law of Kim Jong Un’s sister Kim Yo Jong, could be the elite who would most likely dare to question Kim Jong Un, or to attempt to consolidate power and succeed Kim if the supreme leader dies in 2022, or to even mount a coup.