By Troy Stangarone
On February 10, rumors that Kim Jong-un had been assassinated at the North Korean Embassy in Beijing began to rapidly spread across the internet. First making their way around Weibo and then jumping to Twitter, word of Kim Jong-un’s death eventually spread as far as the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, but would later be debunked by news organizations such as CNN. Looking back, it’s fair to ask why a seemingly unfounded rumor that Kim Jong-un had been assassinated would seem so believable and spread so quickly, but perhaps more importantly what it would have meant for South Korea had it been true?
The first part is fairly easy to answer. While Twitter and other social media have allowed for the quick dissemination of information, they also tend to the spread false information because they lack the formal vetting process of traditional news sources. Kim Jong-un is not the only living person to have died on Twitter in the past year, as one news organization created a Top 10 list of celebrates killed off by Twitter.
On one level, the news was believable because in many ways North Korea is a mixture of Shakespearean drama unfolding in real life. It is not hard to imagine Kim Jong-un as an indecisive leader or figure head in the mold of Hamlet with plotting relatives and elders (the military) around him calling the shots. Nor, that at the first hint of a move to claim his rightful throne that they would seek to eliminate him first. In fact, the idea that Kim Jong-un may merely be the face of a regime run by others and lacking in his own ability to lead is in many ways how the outside world views him.
Because of the lack of openness in North Korea, it is not hard for people’s minds to wander and to wonder if rumors like this just might be true, even if there is little substance to back it up because it fits with preconceived notions of Kim Jong-un and North Korea. Even when Kim Jong-il died in December there was an inclination for some to think that it must have been a coup, because he had seemed in good health recently and the regime has a history of doctoring the truth, setting aside that heart failure can impact even those in seemingly good health. So, if Russia “is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma” as Winston Churchill famously said, North Korea is more like a fun house mirror in black hole. Seemingly no information escapes and what we think we see can often be distorted. As long as we lack information about North Korea there will likely continue to be an inclination to believe rumors such as this.
The more substantive issue is what an assassination would have meant for South Korea. Because our real knowledge of the inner workings and the stability of the regime in Pyongyang is so sparse, it’s difficult to know for sure what a real assassination would mean for stability on the peninsula. The military might be able to hold the regime together, perhaps with Kim Jong-nam returning with Chinese support to keep a Kim family member at the front of the regime. However, an assassination could quickly lead to the dissolution of the regime, at which point it becomes a question of whether the process of unification begins or China supports a new strongman to try and maintain North Korea as a buffer state between itself and U.S. troops in South Korea.
If the regime began to fall apart, Seoul would likely have to move quickly. In many ways, the collapse of the Eastern Bloc and German reunification might end up looking like a slow and orderly process in comparison to reunification in Korea. Much of the public planning to date has focused on a more gradual process. In an article in Der Spiegel one Korean official notes that “We don’t want the North to collapse. Our plan calls for: first creating peace, then cooperation, then a confederation, then unity.” The challenge for Seoul is that should an assassination occur unity might come before peace or cooperation, looking more like regime change in Libya than reunification in German.
Fortunately, the rumors of Kim Jong-un’s passing proved to be premature, but they are an important reminder that things could change at any moment in North Korea. Ultimately, this will require flexibility on the part of Seoul and Washington, especially since Beijing is unwilling to discuss how best to handle change in North Korea. That might be the real lesson from the latest passing on Twitter.
Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute. The views expressed here are his own.
Photo from Viola Violante’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.