North Korea–knowing what we don’t know

Over the past several days, social media (especially Twitter) has been rife with rumors that Kim Jong Un, leader of North Korea, is dead.

The rumors can be fascinating. It can even be exciting to consider North Korea’s potential “wildcard” futures. But it’s still important to know we don’t know. Anything presently being offered is largely on the side of speculation, with very little basis in fact.

The most we know: China has allegedly sent medical teams (although it’s worth asking why we would know this, considering China tends to censor news). South Korea says Kim is alive and well. We’ve gone days without seeing anything of Kim, but that’s happened before.

There are scenarios that he is dead. If so, North Korea is already in the midst of a leadership transition. The more likely scenario (in my mind) is that he is alive, but convalescing after some medical event.

If he is indeed dead, I won’t pretend to be able to predict who will be leader next. However, the most likely scenario is that there will be a leader. North Korea’s command structure is broader than just Kim; it is more like a mafia state. Someone related to the military–or possibly Kim’s sister–will almost certainly step up to the plate.

The one wildcard scenario I have allowed myself to indulge in (and yes, this is an indulgence): what if, in the midst of a leadership transition, China decides to step in – either to relieve North Korea of its nuclear weapons, or to take the state over entirely? I don’t pretend to know if that’s even a remote possibility, but it is one “wildcard” way for North Korea to open, in some sense, to the Gospel.

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