Gaming Out NK’s post-Jong Il Future (1): Counterfactual North Korea?


Kim Jong Il as Nietszchean Superman: Now you know who was Casper David Friedrich’s Wanderer

 Part 2 is here.

Regular readers will know that I joined the geopolitical consulting firm Wikistrat as a part-time analyst and blogger. They set up a big simulation this week based on fall-out from a sudden demise of NK leader Kim Jong Il. I think this is a great question and a timely one. This post is to solicit your input for my write-up in that scenario.

Jong-Il turned 70 this week. Most people think he had a stroke in 2008, and defectors have painted a picture of him as hard-drinking and -partying when he was younger. There is lots of speculation that he may have kidney or liver problems. Hence Kim’s death is imminent, and we need to start planning for it, because it will almost certainly be disruptive.

Any system as personalized as the DPRK will struggle when that person passes.However, it is not clear to me whether a protracted death process or a sudden one would be worse for NK. If Kim’s death is a protracted decline, like Brezhnev’s as leader of USSR, NK could slide for years into a grey  zone of factional stasis and drift, unable to make domestic choices or conduct foreign policy. The sort of political immobilism and stagnation that characterized the early 80s of the east bloc could leave Pyongyang inchoate, a fairly scary thought given NK nuke and missile programs that could easily be proliferated away in an environment of state decay.  Conversely, a rapid death, per this Wikistrat scenario, opens the possibility of sharp internal conflict, because the next Kim (Jong-Un) has not yet been properly groomed and trained. Jong-Il had 15 years to learn the ropes; his son will have at best a few years. A quick death would likely expose the many institutional, familial, and factional fault-lines that Jong-Il papers over.

Gaming out these sorts of ‘what if’ scenarios like this is what we call a counterfactual in social science: a thought experiment in which a small, important, and plausible historical change is made in order to reveal new facts. E.g., what if the Cuban Missile Crisis had provoked a nuclear war? Would the Europeans have held their NATO alliance commitment to the US as the missiles were flying over their heads? What would have happened to nonwhite emancipation in the Western Hemisphere if the South had won the American Civil War? This exercise on Kim’s death fits the counterfactual requirements quite well. Here is a bit of method to inform structure this scenario and any comments on a post-Kim NK:

1. Plausibility. A lot of counterfactuals in movies and airport thrillers are so implausible as to be ridiculous. It is reasonable to speculate about a North America after a Southern civil war victory. For the first two years, the South did remarkably well, and a few times it was really close. By contrast, I just finished reading the ridiculous DaVinci Code. It is all but impossible to imagine the Church keeping some super-conspiracy for 2000 years that would turn everything in Christianity upside down. In short, the variable being changed has to be credibly mutable. A counterfactual that posits a German victory in WWI is genuine heuristic device, because it was pretty close and so all the mechanisms to explain and learn from that would-be outcome are in place. By contrast, Dan Brown’s work is so far out that it taught us almost nothing about the Catholicism. Kim’s well-known poor health makes this plausible.

2. Small events. Counterfactuals become more and more ridiculous the more they must change. The best counterfactuals change as little as possible. Hence, counterfactuals usually change discrete events or policy choices by agents who could clearly have changed their mind. Counterfactuals that would undue massive structural characteristics like the discovery of agriculture or gunpowder are all but useless. This is why counterfactuals so frequently focus on the outcome of certain battles and assassinations: the battle could have gone the other way; the assassin might have missed. Probably the most famous to American readers is Oliver Stone’s JFK, which claims if Kennedy hadn’t been shot, the US would have pulled out of Vietnam. This logic is especially applicable to NK. In such cults of personality, the small decisions by all-powerful leaders have huge consequences. Had Hitler died in 1944 assassination attempt, Europe would be quite different. In the same way, when Kim Jong Il dies, an era will end in NK.

3. These small changes must still be important. The world is filled with data that vary, but most of it is irrelevant. It makes no difference if Napoleon liked tea or coffee. Counterfactuals must identify variables that are discrete and limited in scope (point 2), plausibly changeable (point 1), and yet still of major importance. If John Wilkes Booth had missed, what would Reconstruction have looked like? No one cares about his choice of boots, but his target practice played a catastrophic role in American history.

Gaming out Kim’s passing meets all these criterion. Kim’s sudden death is quite plausible, and his eventual death completely predictable. It is a small event – not for him of course – but it requires no re-imagining of the DPRK regime or its history. Finally, Kim’s lifestyle choices are in fact critical; one fear back in the 1990s was that an possibly alcoholic/drug-abusing Kim Jong Il would achieve nuclear power and start pushing buttons in a haze. No one cares if Kim would prefer opera to film, but his health is central. As morbid as it is to say it, it is almost certain that the sooner he passes, the happier NK will be.

My comments following these criteria will go up on Monday. Any previous feedback would be much appreciated.

4 thoughts on “Gaming Out NK’s post-Jong Il Future (1): Counterfactual North Korea?

  1. Dr. Bob:

    Imagine if Gore was President when 9/11 went down. Think about this for a second and not be reactionary. We know that the US wouldn’t have stopped the attack regardless of which party was in charge. The US Democratic Party would have owned the entire thing and we would never have had our first African American President.


  2. Pingback: Gaming Out NK’s post-Jong Il Future (2): A Likely Military Dictatorship « Asian Security Blog

  3. Pingback: Korean-German Unification Parallels (1): Similarities « Asian Security Blog

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