North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un is in ‘grave danger’ after undergoing a cardiovascular procedure earlier this month, a United States official told CNN. There’s been speculation over Kim’s deteriorating health for months due to his heavy smoking, weight and workload, and it grew after he missed the birthday of his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, which was celebrated as a national holiday in North Korea on April 15.
According to Daily NK, a website run by North Korean defectors, a source revealed that Kim is recovering at a villa in Hyangsan in the Mount Kumgang region following his surgery, which took place on April 12.
An unidentified source said, “My understanding is that he had been struggling (with cardiovascular problems) since last August but it worsened after repeated visits to Mount Paektu,” the country’s highest mountain and a sacred site for North Koreans. The last time Kim, 36, was seen in public was on April 11, when he attended a meeting of the ruling Workers’ Party’s politburo, according to Daily NK.
On April 25, rumors intensified over Kim’s health status. While the hashtag, “Kim Jong Un is Dead” was trending on Twitter, a Japanese news outlet reported that Kim was in a “vegetative state,” following his surgery.
While it’s difficult to know the severity of Kim’s health, as North Korea does not have a free press and tightly controls information concerning its leader, his noticeable absence has left many to wonder: If Kim died, who would take over as North Korea’s leader? Unlike in America, where there is a clear plan of succession, the process is more complicated in North Korea.
There Is No Obvious Successor, But It’s Largely Assumed That Power Would Stay Within The Kim Dynasty
In a 2017 interview with 9News, Monash University’s Andy Jackson said, “I don’t know who would take over, but it wouldn’t be the end of the Kim dynasty, they would get somebody else. Legitimacy for the North Korean government is totally centered around the Kim dynasty.”
The Kim dynasty started with war hero Kim Il Sung, the first leader and founder of North Korea, officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, who died in 1994. His leadership was passed down to his son, Kim Jong Il, who was succeeded by Kim Jong Un after his death in 2011.
However, key members of Kim’s family have perished since the current leader took power. Kim’s older brother, Kim Jong Nam, was assassinated in February 2017 in a chemical attack in Malaysia, and his uncle, Jang Song Thaek, was killed on Kim’s order after illegally using antiaircraft machine guns in 2013.
Australian National University’s Bates Gill told 9News, “I suppose in practice you could envision a junta of generals stepping in some way. Maybe there is a relative we don’t really know about who could be stood up as a legitimate successor. But there isn’t anyone waiting in the wings.”
According to the NK News, a natural power struggle would ensue following Kim’s death. However, there’s a good chance that one of the top Workers’ Party members could take over, with Chairman of the Organization and Guidance Department Choe Ryong Hae being the top candidate.
What About His Sister Kim Yo Jong?
Daughter of Kim Jong Il and Ko Yong Hui, Kim Yo Jong is believed to be the youngest of seven siblings, born in 1987, and considered a “favored member” of the family. She is a trusted advisor to Kim Jong Un and in 2018 was nominated to North Korea’s politburo.
Kim Yo Jong is largely credited for creating her big brother’s public image, following the trends of fellow dictators around the world. While she briefly lost some of her power in 2019 after negotiations with President Trump fell through in Hanoi, she has since earned her way back to being the most powerful woman in North Korea.
According to the Washington Examiner, “North Korean experts are also divided on whether a woman could ever take command. After all, North Korea is very traditional, and it would be very hard for other Pyongyang elites to accept her as supreme leader. It is very probable that she would be pushed aside once her brother has an old enough male heir.”
Could One of Kim Jong Un’s Children Take Over?
Kim and his wife Ri Sol Ju share three children together, according to South Korea’s National Intelligence Service. However, very little is known about their ages or names. There is public knowledge of only one of Kim’s kids’ names, and that’s thanks to Dennis Rodman.
The retired NBA star shares a famous friendship with North Korea’s supreme leader and claimed to hold his baby daughter when he visited the family in 2013. Rodman said Kim’s daughter’s name was Ju Ae.
Without knowing the age or sex of Kim’s children, it’s hard to know whether one would be able to step into the role as North Korea’s next supreme leader. However, there’s a chance the role could be held by someone until one of Kim’s children is deemed ready to succeed.