January 14, 2021

A Message to the Incoming Biden Administration – Pay Attention to North Korea

By George Hutchinson 

Growing Signs of an Economic Crisis 

As the Biden administration gets underway amidst ongoing political strife in the U.S., signs of a progressively destabilizing North Korea might not get the level of recognition required to ensure coordinated plans are in place to deal with regional instability. Rather than wait for a deep crisis to occur in Northeast Asia, it will be essential that comprehensive planning and coordination occur early in the new administration. What exactly are the vulnerabilities of the Kim regime to instability, what are the risks of highest concern, and what can be done?

Media and policy establishment attention to North Korea has been mostly fixated on the regime’s nuclear program—from the tests and missile launches that culminated in late 2017 to Trump-Kim summitry that many hoped would lead to denuclearization negotiations to where we are now, waiting to see how Kim will size up the Biden administration and whether North Korean provocations will resume.

Getting less attention but having as much potential impact on regional stability is Kim Jong-un’s need to get the North Korean economy going. At a plenary meeting of the North Korean Workers’ Party held on April 21, 2018, Kim announced to his central committee that nuclear and long-range missile tests were no longer needed—the nuclear program was complete. It was time, according to Kim, to focus on building a powerful economy.[1] But that was almost three years ago, and conditions for North Korea have grown worse.

Initial hopes for getting the North Korean economy on track were dashed in February 2019 at the Hanoi summit when Kim tried to negotiate a generous package of sanctions relief up front in return for watered down commitments to dismantle the Yongbyon nuclear complex. Donald Trump refused to go along, resulting in a long train ride home for the empty-handed North Korean leader. Sanctions have remained in place since, and Trump, the only sitting U.S. president to ever engage a North Korean leader directly, lost his reelection bid. Meanwhile, there are no signs in sight that North Korea’s economy will improve any time soon.

Kim may sense that patience over the economy is running thin. On January 5, 2021, at the opening of the 8th Workers' Party Congress, North Korea’s largest and most important political event, he admitted the regime had fallen short of meeting the country’s economic goals.[2] Not long after experiencing punishing typhoon-related flooding, he openly shed tears while apologizing for the regime’s failures during an October military parade speech celebrating the founding of the Korean Workers’ Party.[3] But things are not likely to get better. Sanctions continue and the country’s borders with China have remained sealed due to the COVID pandemic, causing trade with its neighbor to plummet by 75 percent over the first 10 months in 2020.[4] Are these warning signs enough to get North Korea, and the possibility of regime instability on the administration’s radar?


The Real Possibility for Regime Instability

In late April 2020, rumors mushroomed and swirled over the condition of Kim Jong-un’s health. North Korea’s cheese-loving, chain-smoking leader was reportedly being treated after undergoing a “cardiovascular procedure” on April 12 at the Hyangsang Medical Center in North Pyongan Province.[5] The previous month, North Korea’s state news agency had ham-handedly issued a self-flattering statement about the country’s response to COVID-19, praising the regime’s vigilance at keeping the number of cases contained at zero. Even at this early stage of the pandemic, North Korea’s claim of nil cases seemed highly dubious. The virus originated in Wuhan, the first country outside of China to experience a spike in cases was South Korea, and North Korea is sandwiched between the two countries.[6] What was this seemingly flagrant suppression of information intended to cover up? Were the elite in Pyongyang hiding something?

Kim’s absence from several key events that April, including the annual public celebration of his grandfather’s birthday, fueled speculation over the potentially perilous condition of his health. Adding to the disquietude were reports that made it seem like the North Korean system was in the initial throes of breakdown—movement of trains was allegedly disrupted on both sides of the border between China and North Korea while low-flying helicopters were supposedly spotted over Pyongyang as panic-stricken residents stockpiled goods in the capital. The U.S., meanwhile, was monitoring indications that suggested Kim was in purported “grave danger.” Then in early May, as quickly as they had begun, rumors and speculation over Kim’s ill health halted when pictures appeared of him at a ribbon-cutting event for a new fertilizer factory.[7]

The extent to which Kim Jong-un may or may not have been incapacitated during April 2020 may never be known. Regardless, the media-driven speculation over Kim’s health did provide an opportunity for decisionmakers, planners and policy practitioners to re-ponder Kim dynastic power transition and the potential for regime instability, along with the attendant risks and possible responses. To be sure, Pyongyang has demonstrated a degree of resilience for decades, weathering natural disasters, muddling through self-inflicted crises, and managing precarious dynastic successions. The regime’s success, if one can call it that, lies largely in a suffocating system of control that restricts society, controls ideas and information, and brutally punishes violators with force.[8] Nevertheless, the regime remains vulnerable.

There are numerous potential exogenous and endogenous causes that would create instability and the Kim regime is highly vulnerable to all of them. These range widely, from a premature exit by Kim Jong-un—natural or unnatural, to coups, uprisings, or simply the regime’s inability to continue coping with international pressure against the backdrop of myriad other ongoing crises. Also included are scenarios like widescale natural disasters or accidents that do not begin as direct challenges to the Kim’s party leadership, but simply shake the regime due to their staggering implications. A Chernobyl-scale environmental or safety-related event could create chaos and confusion at levels that rupture regime stability. Should the regime unsuccessfully withstand these shocks to its ruling structure, countless unsettling scenarios could unfold.[9]

The Hazards of the Korean People’s Army without Clear Command and Control

Any scenario involving breakdown of the Kim regime creates grave concerns over the disposition and employment, intentional or inadvertent, of the Korean People’s Army (KPA) and its highly destructive weapons, not to mention North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction, which of course include a portfolio of nuclear warheads. The scenarios are further complicated by the numerous variables involved: China’s potential intervention; U.S. involvement vis-à-vis OPCON considerations, existing contingency plans, and the U.S.-ROK military alliance; South Korea’s political approach; involvement by the UN and NGOs; refugees and other humanitarian considerations; and the potential formation of factional groups, each competing to fill the vacuum of power.

This list of notional factors represents just some of the variables within the full range of possibilities. Adding even more complexity to concerns over the disposition and employment of KPA forces is the vertical rigidity of North Korea’s command and control system. As a means to control the KPA, information is rarely allowed to flow horizontally. Information generated at the bottom of the command chain flows up vertically and orders flow back down the chain. Little, if any, communication is shared among adjacent KPA units.[10] In a scenario where the regime is destabilized, KPA units, with no command and control node in place to issue orders, may have no other choice than to default to pre-built checklists and execute pre-assigned tasks with no regard to, and no understanding of, the real-world events going on around them. Cut off from information, these units could operate in a highly suboptimal way, thinking they are going about business as per a pre-approved plan.

The high stakes involved over the disposition and employment of the KPA along with the added complexity of numerous interacting variables not only puts primacy on maintaining contingency plans that are well-coordinated and up to date, but it also places prioritization on understanding potential communication pathways capable of reaching KPA military forces in the event of a regime breakdown. This will be vital in order to provide lines of emergency communication outside of broken-down regime control channels to prevent the unnecessary employment of weaponry or force, prepare for complex humanitarian operations intended to provide assistance, and if needed, sustain internal defensive operations. Campaigns of information dissemination must be designed to inform KPA forces, down to the soldier level, of the real-world situation occurring outside North Korea, imminent or ongoing human rights violations targeting them, and humanitarian help that is on its way to tend to them. To achieve these vital activities, it is essential that comprehensive interagency planning and coordination occur early in the new administration, rather than waiting for a crisis to occur.




[1] “DPRK Report on the Third Plenary Meeting of the Seventh Central Committee,” The National Committee on North Korea,
https://www.ncnk.org/resources/publications/dprk_report_third_plenary_meeting_of_seventh_central_committee_of_wpk.pdf, accessed January 10, 2021

[2] Shim Kyu-seok, “Kim Concedes Economic Shortfalls as Congress Opens,” Korea JoongAng Daily, January 6, 2021, https://koreajoongangdaily.joins.com/2021/01/06/national/northKorea/North-Korea-8th-Party-Congress-Kim-Jongun/20210106165200570.html, accessed January 10, 2021

[3] “Kim Jong Un’s Admitting to Economic Failure,” The Dong-A Ilbo, January 7, 2021, https://www.donga.com/en/article/all/20210107/2353213/1/Kim-Jong-Un-s-admitting-to-economic-failure, accessed January 10, 2021

[4] Hyung-jin Kim and Kim Tong-hyung, “Mired in Crises, North Korea's Kim to Open Big Party Meeting,” AP, December 29, 2020, https://apnews.com/article/pandemics-seoul-south-korea-north-korea-storms-5cae55abfc7a3db4ee10672530d591b7, accessed January 10, 2021

[5] Ha Yoon-a, “김정은, 최근 심혈관 시술 받았다…여전히 특각서 치료 중 [Kim Jong Un Receives Recent Cardiovascular Procedure...Still Being Treated at Villa],” DailyNK, April 20, 2020, https://www.dailynk.com/김정은-최근-심혈관-시술-받았다여전히-특각서-치/, accessed January 3, 2021, 

[6] George Hutchinson, “Reckless Response: North Korea Should Come Clean on COVID-19,” Center for Security Policy Studies, George Mason University, March 19, 2020, http://csps.gmu.edu/2020/03/19/reckless-response-north-korea-should-come-clean-on-covid-19/?fbclid=IwAR3HQxs5RXQ3fqKiAJ6ghqV4iB3Bq0sRi7g-VsnzsAEWEMwLBMAIYo1xCpg, accessed January 5, 2021

[7] For overlapping coverage of the speculative reporting and reactions over Kim Jong-un’s status, see Ha, “김정은, 최근 심혈관 시술 받았다…여전히 특각서 치료 중[Kim Jong Un Receives Recent Cardiovascular Procedure...Still Being Treated at Villa]”; Anna Fifield, “Is the Talk About Kim Jong Un Being Sick—or Worse—True? Pyongyang is Abuzz, Too,” The Washington Post, April 26, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/is-the-talk-about-kim-jong-un-being-sick--or-worse--true-pyongyang-is-abuzz-too/2020/04/26/d29b9770-873e-11ea-81a3-9690c9881111_story.html; Jim Sciutto, Joshua Berlinger, Yoonjung Seo, Kylie Atwood and Zachary Cohen, “US Monitoring Intelligence That North Korean Leader is in Grave Danger After Surgery, CNN, April 21, 2020, https://edition.cnn.com/2020/04/20/politics/kim-jong-un-north-korea/index.html; Sheena Chestnut Greitens, “North Korea’s Leader May Be in Ill Health. Here’s What We Know About Instability in the World’s Most Secretive Regime,” The Washington Post, April 22, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/04/22/north-koreas-leader-may-be-ill-health-heres-what-we-know-about-instability-worlds-most-secretive-regime/; Chad O'Carroll and Oliver Hotham, “Life Continues as Normal in Pyongyang as Kim Jong Un Health Rumors Swirl,” NK News, April 20, 2020, https://www.nknews.org/2020/04/life-continues-as-normal-in-pyongyang-as-kim-jong-un-health-rumors-swirl/; Choe Sang-hun, “Kim Jong-un Is Back. What Happens When He’s Really Gone?” The New York Times, May 2, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/02/world/asia/kim-jong-un-alive.html; Paul Farhl, “Kim Jong Un Appears to be Alive After All. So Why Did CNN and Other News Outlets Report He Was on His Deathbed?” May 6, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/media/kim-jong-un-appears-to-be-alive-after-all-so-how-did-his-death-make-the-news/2020/05/05/e9cf7f0e-8d6c-11ea-a0bc-4e9ad4866d21_story.html; all accessed January 3, 2021

[8] For a detailed description of North Korea’s “Authoritarian Toolbox,” see, “Daniel L. Byman and Jennifer Lind, "Pyongyang's Survival Strategy: Tools of Authoritarian Control in North Korea," International Security, Vol. 35, No. 1 (Summer 2010), pp. 44-74

[9] For examples of scenarios that could occur involving a Kim regime collapse, see Bruce E. Bechtol Jr., “Planning for the Future: Conditions of Combined ROK-U.S. Military Intervention in Potential DPRK Contingencies,” The Korean Journal of Defense Analysis, Vol. 24, No. 4 (December 2012), p. 492, http://www.kida.re.kr/data/kjda/06_Bruce%20E_Bechtol.pdf, accessed January 5, 2020; David S. Maxwell, “Catastrophic Collapse of North Korea: Implications for the United States Military,” a monograph prepared for the School of Advanced Military Studies, United States Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Leavenworth, KS, Academic Year 1995-96, pp. 5-15 https://apps.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a314274.pdf, accessed January 5, 2020; Bruce W. Bennett and Jennifer Lind, “The Collapse of North Korea: Military Missions and Requirements,” International Security, Vol. 36, No. 2 (Fall 2011), pp. 87-89. Also, see Robert Collins’ phases of North Korean collapse, Robert D. Kaplan, “When North Korea Falls,” The Atlantic (October 2006), https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2006/10/when-north-korea-falls/305228/, accessed January 11, 2021. 

[10] Joseph S. Bermudez, "Information and the DPRK's Military and Power-Holding Elite," in Kongdan Oh and Ralph C. Hassig, eds., "North Korean Policy Elites," IDA Paper, P-3903 (Alexandria, Va.: Institute for Defense Analysis, June 2004), p. I-S-2