Major powers plan next moves as uncertainty surrounds North Korea

Recent reports have speculated that North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un is in critical condition if not dead after undergoing heart surgery. If this is true Kim Jong-un's sister, Kim Yo-jong, would serve as his successor. While North Korea has worked to dispel these rumors the US and China still have contingency plans in place in case the region becomes unstable (

North Korea has been a hotbed for international conflict and controversy ever since its founding under Kim Il-sung in 1948. North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950 in an effort to take the peninsula. UN forces led by the United States intervened on behalf of South Korea while China provided support for the North. In 1953 a DMZ was established and fighting largely stopped, however assassination attempts and border skirmishes persisted for decades. During this time period North Korea was loosely allied with the Soviet Union and China, even after the Sino-Soviet split in the 1960's.

Kim Il-sung's successor, Kim Jong-il took office in 1994, continuing many of his father's policies. Kim Jong-il sought to expand North Korea's nuclear capabilities, hoping to gain legitimacy as a foreign power. While the US tried to intervene, North Korea continued testing in secret, claiming its first successful underground test in 2006. Kim Jong-il died in 2011 and was succeeded by his son Kim Jong-un. Under Kim Jong-un's leadership North Korea has seen an increase in military activity, especially nuclear testing. Starting in 2016, North Korea began testing missiles despite protests from nearby Japan, the US, and the United Nations. Kim Jong-un has also sought to open relations with foreign leaders including US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

All three leaders have been charged with egregious human rights violations during their tenures. North Korea is a strict totalitarian dictatorship where almost every aspect of society is determined by the state. While not wholly proven because of North Korea's isolationist policies, all three leaders have faced accusations of prolonged famine, repression, torture, and even mass purges. Will the same be said for Kim Yo-jong if she takes power?

North Korea has endured for over 70 years despite the efforts of foreign powers and the UN. If it finally falls will we see a reunified peninsula or will China use this as an opportunity to expand it sphere of influence. While the US and China have been peaceful partners and rivals, tensions have risen thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. Will this push them towards the type of proxy wars seen between the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War or will they work together for the benefit of the region?

Image Credit: KCNA via Reuters

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