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27 Sep 2020 23:45
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  •   Home > News > International

    Kim Jong-un is dealing with coronavirus and a string of natural disasters. Can he maintain his grip on power?

    Crippling sanctions, an economy in crisis, a global pandemic and a string of natural disasters. As North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un faces crisis after crisis, his increasingly powerful sister has not been seen in public for months.

    It has battled typhoons, a storm, flooding, a coronavirus lockdown, and now North Korea faces a new challenge: to rebuild and harvest its crops before winter hits.

    The country says it has been hit hard by "disastrous meteorological phenomena" this summer, with heavy rains and typhoons bringing the second-highest rainfall in 25 years.

    For a nation that lives harvest to harvest, damage to rice crops can be a calamity.

    Hundreds of thousands of people are believed to have starved to death when a series of natural disasters and economic issues hit the country in the 1990s.

    North Korea's then leader Kim Jong-il managed to maintain his power during the period known as the Arduous March by blaming the famine on external forces.

    But North Korea watchers are split on how his son, Kim Jong-un, will stay on top while facing disastrous weather events, a crumbling economy and a global pandemic.

    While it could disrupt his grip on power, some experts say Mr Kim could instead deflect the blame and use it as an excuse to purge others.

    How the typhoon could lead to a purge

    In early September, Typhoon Maysak, the ninth typhoon of the season, led to a state of emergency, paralysed transport and destroyed more than 2,000 houses.

    It also left buildings inundated and destroyed roads and dozens of bridges.

    In response, leader Mr Kim ordered 12,000 members of the ruling Workers' Party of Korea to help rebuild the country, even visiting towns and regions ravaged by his new enemy: nature.

    Natural disasters are unlikely to threaten Mr Kim, according to Shea Cotton, a senior research associate at the James Martin Centre for Non-proliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

    He says if anything, it may be an opportunity to help him cement his iron grip on power.

    Mr Cotton, who has studied North Korea's missile program, said the regime could use the recent disasters as an excuse to purge "scapegoats for the disasters".

    Party leaders in some of the worst-hit provinces have reportedly lost their jobs.

    "Sure, maybe those people were ignoring orders from Pyongyang to prepare for the disaster so as to further enrich themselves, but they probably weren't alone," Mr Cotton said.

    "Unfortunately, the worst of these typhoons will fall on those in North Korea the regime cares least about," he said.

    New York-based Asian affairs analyst Sean King also said he was not convinced a pandemic or natural disaster would affect the ruling Kim family.

    Mr King, the vice-president of Park Strategies, says the regime has survived challenges in the past.

    "The despotic Kim monarchy's somehow managed to survive the end of the Cold War, multiple natural disasters, famine, deforestation and its own horrific, self-inflicted Korean War," he said.

    How climate could be Kim's greatest enemy

    But Australia's leading North Korea expert, Leonid Petrov, said the increasingly unstable climate and the coronavirus pandemic were far different crises to those which Mr Kim's father and grandfather faced.

    "I think the Kim Jong-un regime has faced a new reality where its main enemy is no longer the US or their allies in the South, but the forces of nature," Dr Petrov, a senior lecturer at the International College of Management in Sydney, said.

    "The virus, the deluge and the typhoon have no logic or ideology and cannot be prevented or stopped by a great leader or a nuclear bomb.

    "The party and the army are powerless and the supreme leader has been either sick or in hiding."

    Dr Petrov said the disasters could also prove a huge challenge for Mr Kim's sister, who appeared to have become an important player this year in the North Korean regime.

    "Even his powerful sister, Kim Yo-jong, seems to be clueless on how to lead the country completely cut out of any source of foreign income, while its domestic resources are critically limited or depleted," he said.

    But where is Kim Yo-jong?

    While Mr Kim has been front and centre in leading the disaster efforts, his younger sister has not been seen at his side.

    Regarded by some as an obvious successor to her brother, Ms Kim has played a crucial role in international summits and often appears with the leader at key party events.

    On July 27, official North Korean media pictures showed her handing out commemorative pistols to military leaders on the 67th anniversary of the armistice of the Korean War.

    But the younger Kim has been keeping a low profile since.

    Mr Cotton suggests there could be a good reason for that.

    "I think her not being a part of the disaster coverage in [North Korean] media is probably because they want to focus more on Kim Jong-un surveying and supervising the recovery," Mr Cotton said.

    There were reports in August South Korea's spy agency believed Ms Kim had been elevated to de facto second in command in the secretive North.

    "I have no doubt she probably plays an important role in government, but I'm generally sceptical of stories about some sort of "power-sharing" agreement or some sort of struggle for influence between Kim Jong-un and Kim Yo-jong," Mr Cotton said.

    "I'm sure she does control some significant functions of government, perhaps more than other high-level government [or] party officials, but I suspect the reason is because no-one can rule alone and Kim Jong-un trusts her more than he trusts other people.

    "Then again, with North Korea I'm not sure you ever really know."

    Kim's sister is still his best-placed successor

    Mr Cotton said it was hard to guess what would happen next to whoever would be the future leader, but it was generally good for dictators to have some sort of succession plan in place.

    "If you don't, your underlings — who you rely on to help maintain your grip on power — start thinking about a time without you and start looking for people who could take your place in your absence and ensure their security, wealth and influence," he said.

    Kim Jong-un is only 36 years old, but after he disappeared from public view for several weeks this year, speculation mounted about his health.

    Mr Kim's children are still too young to rule, leaving a potential power vacuum if he were incapacitated in the next decade.

    "Since inevitably everyone dies, you have to work something out, so the best move is to set up your own potential successor who is loyal to you, for your underlings to look to after you're gone," Mr Cotton said.

    Mr Cotton said given the dynastic nature of the Kim regime, his sister seemed to fit that bill.

    "Again though, this is just speculation, who really knows what the hell is going on in North Korea's game of thrones?" he said.

    © 2020 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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