After feverish speculation last week, the world’s media seem to be coming around to the view that North Korean ruler Kim Jong-un is not actually dead. But his true state of health remains unknown, and speculation will no doubt continue at least until he reappears in public.
Even if it turns out to have been entirely a false alarm, the incident has raised some important questions. In particular, it points to two of the key failings of monarchy.
Officially, of course, North Korea is not a monarchy, but rather a “democratic people’s republic”. The reality, however, is that Kim’s rule is absolute, like that of his father and grandfather before him, and his claim to his exalted position is based entirely on his bloodline.
The first problem is the succession. Executive ability is not reliably inheritable, so monarchies have, since time immemorial, found the throne occupied from time to time by fools, infants, psychopaths, lunatics and other less than satisfactory rulers. Efforts to prevent their succession, or later to depose them, have often led to disorder or civil war.
One option is to stick rigidly to a pre-defined line of succession, on the basis that it at least avoids disputes – the French monarchy used to have this as its rationale. (It didn’t work; nobles still fought over the regency when the king was a child or incapacitated.) At the other extreme, monarchs can be chosen (by their predecessor, or by some sort of governing council) from a pool of eligible candidates with royal blood or some other qualification.
In practice, most monarchies have evolved a compromise position: the succession is basically hereditary, with the understanding that the strict rules can be departed from in cases of pragmatic necessity. But what has made succession disputes less bloody in recent times is mostly just the fact that monarchs have become less powerful, yielding most of their prerogatives to constitutional governments.
That’s not the case, though, with North Korea, where the ruler’s power remains untrammelled. Nor, however, is it strictly hereditary. Kim was not his father’s eldest son; he was preferred in the succession to his brother, Kim Jong-chul, who is still alive but is reported “to be more interested in playing guitar than politics.”
Details of Kim’s own family are sketchy, but he is believed to have three children. The oldest of them, however, was only born in 2010, so it will be a while before they are a factor in the succession.
Instead most attention focuses on Kim’s younger sister, Kim Yo-jong (aged 32), who holds senior positions in his regime and appears to enjoy his confidence. But whether a system based on military power and dominated by middle-aged men would readily accept a female ruler remains to be seen.
The second problem is the centralisation of power, and consequent lack of continuity when a ruler departs. Modern government is mostly bureaucratic; information and expertise are diffused among a multitude of officials, who keep the wheels turning and maintain relations with other governments.
But when the levers of power are all concentrated in the hands of an autocratic ruler, the death or overthrow of that ruler is a recipe for chaos. Officials, whether domestic or foreign, who have built up relationships with the old monarch now find themselves back at square one – or worse, because the successor will often feel the need to make a clean break from their predecessor’s policies and personnel.
Which brings us to Donald Trump’s Korean diplomacy, which has been built around his personal relationship with Kim. As Nahal Toosi puts it at Politico:
Now, amid rumors that Kim is sick or even dead, current and former U.S. officials and North Korea analysts say Trump’s mano-a-mano diplomacy looks shakier than ever because the Trump-Kim relationship has been the only one that truly mattered.
This isn’t something I often say, but I think Toosi is being slightly unfair to Trump. When you’re faced with an autocratic regime, you have to deal with the autocrat, and I think Trump did the right thing in reaching out to Kim personally even before his diplomats told him it was the right time.
The fact that it hasn’t yielded anything much in the way of concrete progress towards disarmament isn’t surprising or, to my mind, particularly worrisome. Kim has no intention of actually using his nuclear weapons; their purpose is as a deterrent and perhaps a bargaining chip. He knows, as I put it some years back, that his “chance of military victory against the US is zero.”
If at some point there’s a new Kim in town for the US to deal with, then no doubt there’ll be the usual run of breathless punditry about the threat of war. But for all of its rulers’ eccentricities, the fundamentals of North Korea’s position won’t have changed.