Assassinating Kim Jong-un

March 23, 2016 7:00 AM

Plowing through accumulated mail, I found a recent issue of the International Journal of Korean Studies which included a paper with the eye-catching title “Anticipating and Preparing for the Assassination of Kim Jong-un” written by Georgetown University graduate student Sungmin Cho.  He argues that while “it is unrealistic that the United States or South Korea would seriously consider assassinating Kim Jong-un” (the paper was clearly written before presumptive Republican party presidential nominee Donald Trump advocated just this move), the possibility of assassination by a lone North Korean or group of North Koreans, has a non-zero probability. Indeed, Cho speculates that the reason North Korean reaction to The Interview was so virulent was precisely because it could be regarded as incitement.

Cho then posits four assassination scenarios based on historical cases: “Valkyrie”—a large group of conspirators undertake an assassination with a clear idea of where they want to take the country, essentially assassination as the leading edge of a coup; “Brutus” where a small group of conspirators undertake an assassination without a clear vision of post-assassination governance leading to instability or civil war; “Oswald” where a lone assassin with no personal relation to the target executes the assassination in a public space; and “Kim Jae-gyu” in which an intimate of the target commits the assassination in private. Cho assesses that the regime’s anti-coup surveillance make “Valkyrie” and “Brutus” unlikely. The professionalism of Kim’s bodyguards and the lack of public access to weapons makes “Oswald” similarly unlikely, leaving “Kim Jae-gyu” as the most likely assassination scenario.

He also argues that the policy response of Washington and Seoul should vary across scenarios. In the “Valkyrie” scenario, they should adopt a cautious wait-and-see stance with regard to the new regime. In “Brutus” they should behave more pro-actively to push the outcome of the resulting political instability in the desired direction, though Cho does not indicate what forms such intervention might take. In “Oswald” they should stay on high alert, as the elite attempts to reconstitute the regime. Finally, in “Kim Jae-gyu”, “the US and South Korea will need to boldly and quickly intervene in North Korean affairs” though again, exactly what this means is not spelled out.

In all these scenarios, Cho recognizes that China also has equities at stake and advocates a policy of coordinating with China. It is evident, however, that coordination with China with regard to North Korean contingencies is inadequate today, and it is hard to expect that the three governments could really coordinate planning on such a politically sensitive issue. Probably the best one can hope for is that improved coordination motivated by more general concerns about stability, public health issues, etc. will create channels of communication that can be pressed into use in an assassination scenario.

So, on which side of the Chris Rock line would the killing of Kim Jong-un fall? Disclaimer: while I find Rock hysterically funny, his language may offend some viewers.


Morris Jones

Let’s not forget that the DPRK screams at even trivial insults in the media. Readers should refer to references in this blog about the official protests when the Australian featherweight “newspaper” mX referred to the DPRK as “Naughty Korea” in its Olympic medal count. mX is long gone. I miss it.

This should put considerations of any North Korean reactions to that awful Hollywood moofie in context.

Marcus Noland

Peter, Your points are well-taken and I am glad that you recognize that Cho is not engaged in any kind of advocacy. But to be clear, Cho explicitly takes assassination by a foreign government off the table, and simply analyzes potential scenarios of assassination in a stress-ridden country led by an authoritarian leader undertaken for a variety of motivations, some rational, some involving mental instability by the perpetrator. He then addresses how the advisable response by Seoul and Washington might be scenario-dependent, and discusses how they might handle China’s interests in North Korean developments. This analysis strike me (and evidently the editors at the International Journal of Korean Studies, and presumably his instructors at Georgetown University) as within the bounds of civilized discourse. It goes without saying that two of his typologies stem from US and South Korean history.

Peter Hayes

Dear Marcus, I know states always have to prepare for all conceivable circumstances; and we have the first amendment, so we can all speculate publicly about whatever it is we want in the United States, at least until we cross the line domestically into “hate” language, wherever that boundary is set at any point in time. But when we being to publicly discuss assassination scenarios of Kim Jong Un and appropriate policy responses in scholarly journals, or we have STRATCOM on-line seminar video with the truly scary former USFK Gen. John MacDonald advocating that we consider assassinating North Korea’s leader…I mean, I want KJU to be scared of USFK; but I don’t want to be scared by my own side. And then we do decapitation exercises in force in Korea. It does, to the outsider, at least this Austral-Americano who is an insider-outsider, look ironic, like very weird, strange, more about American fears of the other, about ire, rather than actual analysis.
So I have a tiny question for all to consider. How would the scholarly world and pundits, let alone politicians and mass media, respond to North Korea not only spewing racist rubbish about Obama, or sexist ranting about Park GH, or declaring they can annihilate NY to dust with an H-Bomb, but publishing scenarios of the assassination of the American president? or advocating that they consider assassinating the American president?
Let me be clear. My presumption is that there are NK sleepers in the US, possibly who have crossed the southern border as part of the influx of NK refugees, especially to LA. Some of them may have suicide missions. I do not under-estimate NK reach or wartime intention to strike, including direct attacks on US political and military targets. And, as the Kirby enquiry made clear, we intend to hold the NK regime to account for all its transgressions of human rights, that ultimately trace back to the UN Charter and its foundations in international law.
Now, there is a reason that we have the Universal Charter. It draws lines in the sand between universal values, and values which don’t meet that standard. Not assassinating leaders of states is one of them, also part of international law. Of course, if the locals might assassinate their leader, we have to prepare for that eventuality and think about it, maybe even out loud. But I am not sure it helps the analysis or users of such analysis to do so publicly, and speaking publicly entails accountability for the speech, including all the effects. In this case, I suggest that Cho has gone past the line that distinguishes civil society (civilian, civilized per UN universal values, Keane’s definition of global civil society) from barbaric worlds of criminals, terrorists, and others, including pundits who regularly visit the world of barbarism by their advocacy of policies and interventions that contravene the UN Charter (including Trump’s bloviations). I don’t question Cho’s motivations for a moment, and I am not suggesting that he is advocating that the locals assassinate Kim Jong un. I am suggesting that this type of analysis may not belong in the domain of civilized public discourse, however. I’d be interested in your (and Cho’s) thoughts on the matter.
As to Trump and nuclear weapons…don’t get me started…sex, fear, loathing, ripping of the civilized mask of terror and showing the underlying reality…another time.

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