Uncertain Times: What Kim Jong-un’s health scare suggests about American foreign policy

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File photo of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, right, and Choe Ryong Hae, vice-chairman of the central committee of the Workers' Party, arriving in Pyongyang, North Korea, 2017. Outside media speculates that leader Kim Jong Un may be unwell, there’s uncertainty as to who will be next in line.  Photo by Wong Maye-E / AP Photo.

File photo of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, right, and Choe Ryong Hae, vice-chairman of the central committee of the Workers’ Party, arriving in Pyongyang, North Korea, 2017. Outside media speculates that leader Kim Jong Un may be unwell, there’s uncertainty as to who will be next in line. Photo by Wong Maye-E / AP Photo.

For the past several days, media outlets have been speculating on the health of Kim Jong-un as conflicting reports of his ill health, including claims that he is dead, brain-dead, deathly ill or simply recovering from a heart surgery which took place on April 12, 2020. The confusion has left many wondering what Kim Jong-un’s death could mean for the millions of citizens that are systematically oppressed, starved, tortured and shielded from the outside world. This society, created by Kim Jong-un’s grandfather and continued by descendants and family legacy, is perhaps approaching a crossroads in the event of Kim Jong-un’s death.

Undoubtedly, much of the North Korean government’s power comes from the Kim dynasty, starting with Kim Il-sung, continued by his son Kim Jong-il and currently led by Kim Jong-un. They have created a cult of personality in which they are required by law to be revered and are genuinely considered by many to be gods. 

North Korean defector Hyeonseo Lee describes the public executions, widespread famine and gross violations of human rights that are enabled by the Kim dynasty’s incredible hold on power. Lee describes her name as a chosen one; “Hyeon means sunshine. Seo means good fortune. I chose it so that I would live my life in light and warmth, and not return to the shadow”. 

However, even Lee’s experiences are a one-sided account of the tragedies that occur in North Korea on a regular basis; the absolute scale of atrocities is unfathomably larger. Thus, the notion of any change that may better the lives of millions of tortured and brainwashed North Korean citizens is a welcome one, and Kim Jong-un’s illness and possible death could have large and potentially beneficial consequences. He has no heir who is of a reasonable age to govern a country. So the question remains: Could the Kim dynasty’s regime continue without them?

Similar questions were floated when Kim Jong-il had a stroke and went into a coma in 2008. Then, like now, the country kept his illness a secret, giving them the time necessary to groom Kim Jong-un as the heir, giving them the ability to control the predicted chaos when Kim Jong-il died in 2011.

In fact, North Korea under Kim Jong-un has been more stable and less isolated than ever before. The transfer of power in the past did not seem to weaken the regime, and the conflicting reports coming out of North Korea now seem to suggest a similar pattern. This leaves a stronger North Korea with tried and true methods of transferring power, so it seems that while the Kim dynasty may not continue, their regime unfortunately will.

From a human rights perspective, the North Korean government cannot continue the way that it is. That it has for so long is appalling. On the other hand, the American political perspective seems to focus more on North Korea’s nuclear power. President Trump’s supposed successful policy of “strategic apathy” in bringing North Korea to the negotiating table overlooks its policies within its country. 

While President Trump’s relative success in having Kim Jong-un agree to a vague promise to “work toward … complete denuclearization” could be an argument that his policy should continue as is, it also sets off unintended consequences. For example, they have legitimized North Korean actions, empowering Kim Jong-un to go on several overseas trips over the past two years. These trips, in turn, have developed North Korea’s relationship with Russia and China. Both Russia and China now push for easing sanctions on North Korea. 

The American foreign policy approach with sole focus on denuclearization is consequently ineffectual. An ambiguous agreement does not constitute success; instead, productive action does. The only productive action that seems to have come out of American negotiations with North Korea is Russian and Chinese advocacy for the latter. Because it is clear Kim Jong-un’s death will do little to change North Korean attitude towards human rights, it is time for President Trump’s failed policy of “strategic apathy” to become a little more empathetic.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed by individual writers in the opinion section do not reflect the views and opinions of The Daily Campus or other staff members. Only articles labeled “Editorial” are the official opinions of The Daily Campus.

Thumbnail photo courtesy of Korean Central News Agency / Korea News Service via AP.

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Aarushi Nohria is a contributor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at aarushi.nohria@uconn.edu.

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