Assassinating Kim Jong-un



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.

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