Kim-less Korea

Kim-less Korea

The speculation continues: Where is Kim Jong-un? We'd all grown used to new photos of the North Korean dictator smiling and pointing at things, or galloping up snowy mountaintops, but we haven't seen him at all since April 11.

By now you've heard the rumors. Is he dead? In a vegetative state? Sick or injured? In coronavirus quarantine? Lounging in luxury with a belly laugh at our expense? If you know the answer, please email us here. We promise to keep your wild rumors secret.

But today we'll look beyond these questions, because whenever a secretive, authoritarian state misplaces its strongman, there are larger, longer-term issues to consider. Here are a few questions and tentative answers to advance the discussion.


If foreign governments learn that Kim is dead or incapacitated, what's their first concern? Nukes and refugees. The US, South Korea, and Japan would immediately put their militaries on their highest state of alert, but unless the North Korean regime collapses completely, only China would have the access needed to ensure North Korea's nuclear weapons and material remain in safe hands. China would also lock down the border with North Korea to avoid a potential tidal wave of fleeing refugees.

Who would take power in North Korea? We don't know whether Kim has children, but he does have a sister who has been rising through the ranks of North Korea's leadership. Power might pass to another member of the family or to a committee that includes both family and generals. Fear of chaos would probably encourage the country's new power brokers to cooperate and show unity — at least at first. But the real fight for power would likely erupt gradually and behind the scenes.

China's role. As in every other aspect of North Korea's story, China's influence is powerful but not unlimited. It has long provided most of North Korea's food, fuel, and trade, and China's leaders would have a strong say in North Korea's post-Kim future. But while Beijing wants peace and quiet on the peninsula, it has little interest in assuming full responsibility for North Korea's many burdens by making it a de facto Chinese province.

What would it mean for Korean reunification? In the near term, very little. None of the lead actors in this drama wants reunification anytime soon. China will still want a buffer between US troops and its Korean border. In the US, there is concern that a hasty reunification would end the need for the 23,000 US troops stationed there, just as China is becoming economically indispensable for a newly unified Korean government. And unless they're paid handsomely, North Korea's generals would see reunification as surrender.

Crucially, South Korea's leaders know well that Korean reunification would be far more costly and complicated than the German version. (The gap in living standards between the Koreas today dwarfs the differences between the Germanys in 1990.) Seoul can't afford this project without massive international help that no one will be eager to provide, least of all as the world digs out of what could be the worst global economic crisis since the Great Depression.

The bottom line: Kim might well reappear at any moment. He vanished from public view for a month in 2014 only to reappear with a cane. But continuing doubts about the health of the obese, chain-smoking young dictator will ensure that questions about the longer-term future of the Korean Peninsula remain with us.

A sector that's rapidly expanding, domotics - domus (home) plus robotics - are smart houses that manage temperature and lighting to minimize wasted electricity. For example, smart thermostats sense your presence and set the temperature according to your needs, saving 20% a year on heating bills. Watch this episode of Eni's Energy Shot series to learn how domotics save money and increase a home's value.

Even if the US, Europe, China, and India reduce carbon emissions at the rate they've promised, much climate damage has already been done. That shouldn't stop these and other countries from doing all they can to meet their net-zero emissions targets, but they also better start preparing for a world of people on the move.

Climate change will displace an unprecedented number of people in coming years, creating not just a series of humanitarian crises in many parts of the world, but lasting political, economic, and social upheaval as those of us who live on higher ground try to find a sustainable place for these climate refugees to live.

More Show less

Listen: In a wide-ranging interview with Ian Bremmer, Pulitzer Prize-winning climate journalist Elizabeth Kolbert assesses the current state of the climate crisis and answers a simple question: how screwed are we? And as the climate continues to warm at a record pace, she unpacks some of the more extreme climate solutions that some increasingly desperate nations are starting to consider. Such measures may sound like stuff of science fiction (see: injecting sulfur particles into the atmosphere or shooting millions of tiny orbital mirrors into outer space) as times become more desperate, their appeal is growing. Can we fix the planet the same way we broke it?

China is making its neighbors nervous these days. Chinese fighter jets are screaming into Taiwan's airspace. Hundreds of armed Chinese "fishing boats" are plying the disputed waters of the South China Sea. And Beijing is slashing imports from some trading partners because of disputes over political issues.

To push back against this increasingly aggressive behavior, regional powers Japan, India, and Australia, together with the US, are boosting cooperation via a 17-year-old grouping called the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, or simply "The Quad." But how effectively can these four countries really work together to counter China? Eurasia Group's Peter Mumford discusses the Quad's future.

More Show less

Want to tackle climate change? If so you'll have to reach out to China, which is currently responsible for over a quarter of global carbon dioxide emissions. Beijing will certainly take your call, as climate is a huge priority for President Xi Jinping.

Xi has promised that China will go "net zero" — meaning its carbon emissions will be offset by equal amounts of either natural or tech-driven carbon capture — by 2060. Is a decade later than most of the top 10 polluting countries fast enough for the rest of the world? It is for the Chinese, who want to help but have their own ideas about how.

More Show less

When will it be safe for the world's children to be vaccinated against COVID-19? The World Health Organization's chief scientist, Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, says that vaccines are being tested in children down to the age of six or even lower, and promises that data on children will be shared as soon as it's available. She also notes that there are not enough studies on transmission in schools, and the WHO has advised governments to prioritize schools "over other things like shopping malls or cinema halls or pubs." Dr. Swaminathan spoke with Ian Bremmer in an interview on GZERO World, airing on US public television stations starting April 9. Check local listings.

Watch the episode: Vaccine nationalism could prolong the pandemic

Over the past half century, climate change has had an immense impact on the farmers who produce the food we eat. A new study by Cornell University shows that global warming has knocked 21 percent off of global agriculture productivity growth since 1965, equivalent to seven years of normal growth if humans had not polluted the planet. But not all countries have been affected in the same say. Farmers in warmer parts of the world have been hit hard as conditions grow more arid, but sub-polar regions in Canada or Siberia are now actually better for agriculture because they are not as cold as they used to be. Here we take a look at how climate has affected farming productivity growth around the world.

On Tuesday, a major US intelligence report said the top threat to America right now is China. A day later, John Kerry, the Biden administration's "climate czar," got on a plane to... China.

Such is the drama of ties between the world's two largest economies these days.

More Show less

Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter, Signal

The GZERO World Podcast with Ian Bremmer. Listen now.

GZEROMEDIA

Subscribe to GZERO Media's newsletter: Signal

Can "the Quad" constrain China?

Viewpoint