Rumors swirling that North Korean leader Kim Jong A has fallen critically ill have sparked fears that his demise would destabilize the region and lead to a refugee crisis that would draw in the US, South Korea and possibly other allies, according to a report.
Questions about the reclusive dictator’s health flared after he missed an April 15 commemoration of the 108th birthday of his grandfather, the Hermit Kingdom’s founder Kim Il Sung.
On Wednesday, North Korean state media published some past comments by Kim without mentioning his current whereabouts - while rival South Korea repeated that no unusual developments had been detected in the North.
But even if the 36-year-old overweight despot isn't moribund, he does have health issues and a possible end to his rule would create turmoil, experts told the Military Times.
Although Kim has no named successor or heir apparent, his younger sister - senior ruling party official Kim Yo Jong - appears to be the most likely candidate to step in.
However, some experts believe a collective leadership, which could end the family's dynastic rule, also could be possible.
The lack of a designated heir means there will be "chaos, human suffering, instability," retired South Korean special operations chief Lt. Gen. Chun In-Bum told Military Times. "It's bad news for everyone."
David Maxwell, a retired Special Forces colonel and senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank, told the outlet that an American and South Korean military reaction to such an upheaval could require an effort that "will make Afghanistan and Iraq pale in comparison . "
"It is unknown whether Kim Jong Un has designated a successor," Maxwell said. "We can speculate that perhaps his sister Kim Yo Jong has been designated as his successor based on her recent promotion and the fact she has begun making official statements in her name beginning last month."
But it is unknown, he added, "whether a woman, despite being part of the Paektu bloodline could become the leader of the Kim family regime."
A lack of a clear successor could lead to a regime collapse that the US and South Korea must be prepared to handle, said Maxwell, who added that military planners, including himself, have long briefed senior leaders on what could happen.
There is a "humanitarian disaster that will unfold in North Korea," adding to the upheaval wrought by the coronavirus pandemic, Maxwell told Military Times.
"South Korea, China, and Japan (via boat) are going to have to deal with potential large scale refugee flows," he said. "Units of the North Korean People's Army are going to compete for resources and survival. This will lead to internal conflict among units and could escalate to widespread civil war. "
And despite such internal turmoil, North Korea's military would continue to fight to defend the nation, he said.
"Since North Korea is a Guerrilla Dynasty built on the myth of anti-Japanese partisan warfare, we can expect large numbers of the military (1.2 million active duty and 6 million reserves) to resist any and all outside foreign intervention including from South Korea, "Maxwell told the outlet.
Complicating matters, he added, the US and South Korea would have to be prepared to secure Pyongyang's "entire (weapons of mass destruction) program, nuclear, chemical, biological weapons and stockpiles, manufacturing facilities, and human infrastructure (scientists and technicians). "
Chun mostly backed Maxwell’s grim predictions about refugees and a possible civil war in the north, but did not see a US-South Korean military incursion past the 38th Parallel.
"What are we going to do? March in there? Let the Chinese do it, ”Chun said.
"The DPRK is a sovereign country. Anyone going in there, including the Chinese, would be crazy. The ROK-US has a bad plan with bad assumptions. It will get us into a nuclear war, "he added.