North Korea has confounded every US president since Bill Clinton with its determination to become a nuclear power. And now President Trump may face the worst set of choices yet—either tolerate a nuclearized North Korea continually threatening the destruction of Los Angeles and Chicago, or risk a shooting war in Asia that could leave hundreds of thousands dead.
But there’s another possibility that gets little public attention: A coup or assassination of North Korean strongman Kim Jong Un, pulled off by elites within North Korea itself.
This was the suggestion made recently by John Brennan, who was CIA director from 2013 until the beginning of the Trump administration. At the SALT financial-industry conference in Las Vegas on May 18, Brennan offered his assessment of the rising North Korean threat amid an overview of world hotspots. “I would like to think at some point individuals within the North Korean political establishment say to themselves, ‘Kim Jong Un is bringing our country into a slide that will lead us all to be destroyed,’” Brennan said. “Maybe there are people around Kim Jong Un who are going to say, enough is enough.”
Brennan didn’t explicitly say US intelligence agencies think a coup or assassination is plausible. Instead, he caged the idea as informed speculation. Other experts think an internal takedown of Kim might happen in the future, but probably not today. “It’s wishful thinking,” says Sue Mi Terry of the consulting firm Bower Group Asia, who was a former senior analyst on North Korea at the CIA. “That’s what we’re hoping for, but right now, Kim Jong Un is doing a pretty good job getting rid of every single human being who could pose a threat. That’s exactly why he has gotten rid of every single person not directly loyal to him. He’s so paranoid only a few family members even know where he is at any given moment.”
Pondering the future of the bellicose, hermetic nation is a perennial parlor game among foreign policy wonks. But the situation would have immediate—and menacing—implications for financial markets if hostilities erupted. All of Japan, including Tokyo, is already within range of North Korean missiles. South Korea, the world’s 11th largest economy, would be devastated by a war. And mounting tensions with North Korea threaten US relations with China, with Trump hinting that he will reward or punish China based on how much it helps bring North Korea to heel.
Prospects for an inside job
Most analysts dismiss the idea that the United States could—or should—knock off the North Korean leader. North Korea is so closed it would be virtually impossible for any outside intelligence service to isolate Kim for a clandestine hit. A military strike targeting him would be an act of war that North Korea might answer with a devastating artillery attack on Seoul. Such actions would also ignite questions of legality and cause an instant riff with China, which shares a border with North Korea and considers it a sort of client state.
But speculation about an inside job has intensified amid Kim’s brinkmanship with the United States over the north’s ascendant nuclear program. Last year, the International Journal of Korean Studies published an article assessing four possible ways Kim’s fellow North Koreans could assassinate him. Only one was judged plausible—a hit by somebody Kim considered a confidante, who would have private access to the dictator. Other than that, Kim’s bodyguards and ubiquitous security forces are likely to suss out any threat to the supreme ruler and squash it. This might explain frequent purges under Kim, with dozens of high-profile executions of government officials deemed a risk to the state.
The surreal murder of Kim’s half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, in Malaysia in February, may show just how nervous Kim is about a plot to replace him. While Kim Jong Nam was a global rover who had no power base inside North Korea, he did have the same hereditary claim to the country’s leadership as Kim Jong Un. That made him a viable replacement if there ever were an assassination. Some analysts even speculate that Kim Jong Nam was murdered not on the order of his half-brother, but on the order of a cabal within North Korea proving it can act without their leader’s authorization—and Kim Jong Un himself might be next.
There have also been reports that the current CIA director, Mike Pompeo, has met with defectors from North Korea to discuss the possibility of an inside job that takes out Kim. It’s the CIA’s job, of course, to assess conditions inside nations hostile to the United States, so there would be nothing unusual about the CIA director meeting with helpful sources. And it’s worth pointing out that predictions of North Korea’s collapse have swirled for years—always erroneously, so far.
Assuming Kim survives, he still faces intensifying constraints that suggest he has a weaker hand than his striving nuclear program and newly built intercontinental missile might suggest. If Trump manages to toughen worldwide sanctions against North Korea, that will erode support for Kim among elites he needs to stay in power. Those elites rely on Kim for patronage, and if he has less and less to offer, he loses leverage over the generals and financiers who carry out his orders. Kim is already far less popular than his father and grandfather, due to the culture of fear he propagates. His predecessors had a gentler touch and bona fide accomplishments to back them up, at least among their fellow North Koreans.
“Over the long term, the picture does not look good for Kim Jong Un,” says Terry of the Bower Group. “Kim Jong Un has much less loyalty from the elites. If the elites feel like, I’m not safe here, then of course they’ll look for ways to defect or leave or find some other way out. That’s what John Brennan is getting at.”
Still, it’s almost certain Kim will continue aggressively pursing nukes and the missiles that can deliver them halfway around the world. And Trump will most likely have to come to terms with that, putting North Korea in a class with Russia and China as nuclear powers the US must “deter” in lieu of foiling its plans. Unless there’s a startling surprise north of the 38th parallel.
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Rick Newman is the author of four books, including Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman