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.

During the past year, 58% of all cyberattacks observed by Microsoft from nation-states have come from Russia. And attacks from Russian nation-state actors are increasingly effective, jumping from a 21% successful compromise rate last year to a 32% rate this year. Russian nation-state actors are increasingly targeting government agencies for intelligence gathering, which jumped from 3% of their targets a year ago to 53% – largely agencies involved in foreign policy, national security or defense. The top three countries targeted by Russian nation-state actors were the United States, Ukraine and the UK. These are just a few of the insights in the second annual Microsoft Digital Defense Report. Read additional highlights from the Microsoft on the Issues blog and find the full report here.

If you had to guess which current world leader has made the most trips to Africa, who would you say? China's Xi Jinping? Nope, hardly — he's been there just four times. France's Emmanuel Macron? Pas de tout.

The answer may surprise you: it's Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who's been to the continent more times than the leader(s) of any other non-African state. Just this week he notched his 28th visit, with stops in Angola, Nigeria, and Togo. Sure, being in power for two decades creates a lot of opportunities for exotic travel, but even Putin isn't close: he's been to Africa just five times, all to visit South Africa or Egypt.

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Former Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi was killed by rebels on 20 October, 2011, after a NATO intervention designed to protect civilians helped strengthen an uprising against his regime. Since then, the country has been mired in chaos as different factions have battled for control, resulting in extensive destruction and human causalities. Libya has been nominally governed since 2014 by warring administrations backed by foreign powers in the west and east of the country. Last year, UN mediation efforts finally began to gain traction with an agreement on a cease-fire and a roadmap for elections to be held later this year. We talked with Eurasia Group expert Ahmed Morsy to find out how things are going.

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China's GDP grew a lower-than-expected 4.9 percent year-on-year in the third quarter of 2021, a whopping three percentage points less than in the previous period. It's a big deal for the world's second-largest economy, the only major one that expanded throughout the pandemic — and now at risk of missing its growth target of 6 percent for the entire year.

Normally, such a drastic slowdown would have put the ruling Communist Party in a tizzy. But this time, Xi Jinping knows this is the price he must pay for his big plans to curb rising inequality and boost the middle class at the expense of the CCP's traditional economic mantra: high growth above all else.

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6,000: Poland has doubled the number of troops guarding its border with Belarus to almost 6,000 because of a surge in migrants trying to cross over (there were 612 attempts on Monday alone). Warsaw accuses Minsk of sending non-EU migrants into Poland as payback for EU sanctions against Belarus.

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Religious tension rising in Bangladesh: Clashes between Hindus and Muslims in Bangladesh have surged over the past week, leaving at least four people dead. After an image was posted on Facebook showing the Quran at the feet of a statue at a Hindu temple, Muslims burned Hindu-owned homes and attacked their holy sites. Both sides have taken to the street in protest, with Hindus saying that they have been prevented from celebrating Durga Puja, the largest Hindu festival in the country. Such acts of sectarian violence are not uncommon in Bangladesh, a majority-Muslim country where Hindus account for nine percent of the population. Indeed, as Eurasia Group's Kevin Allison recently warned, unverified social media content stoking inter-ethnic conflict is a massive problem throughout South Asia, where for many people Facebook is synonymous with the internet.

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Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:

Read Ian Bremmer's wide-ranging essay in Foreign Affairs that puts in perspective both the challenge, and the opportunity, that comes from the unprecedented power of Big Tech.

Hi, everybody. Ian Bremmer here on the road, something we haven't done very much recently, but will increasingly as we try to move through COVID. And I want to talk to you about a new article that I just put out in Foreign Affairs that I'm calling "The Technopolar Moment." Not unipolar, not bipolar, not multipolar, technopolar. What the hell does technopolar mean?

It means that increasingly big technology companies are themselves geopolitical actors. So to understand the future of the world, you can't just look at the United States, Europe and China. You need to look at the big tech companies, too.

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China gets away with a lot these days in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and elsewhere. That's because over the past decade, its economy has experienced explosive growth, making it an indispensable trading partner for almost every country in the world. At the same time, China has been expanding its share of the global economy, and is now set to overtake the US as the world's biggest economic powerhouse in the near term. We take a look at China's annual growth rate and share of the global economy based on GDP over the past decade.

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