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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.

Meet Alessandra Cominetti, a recipient of MIT Technology Review Magazine's Innovators Under 35 award. As a lab technician at Eni's Research Centre for Renewable Energy in Novara, Alessandra has devoted her career to finding new solutions and materials to optimize solar energy. Much like the serendipitous encounter that resulted in her employment, her eagerness and willingness to try new things allowed her to stumble upon a material for the creation of portable solar panels.

Watch her remarkable story on the latest episode of Faces of Eni.

Joe Biden has vowed to radically change the US' approach to foreign policy and international diplomacy should he win next week's election.

But a lot has happened in four years under Donald Trump that could impede Biden's ability to simply return to the status quo ante. How different would US foreign policy really be under a Biden presidency? What will the two-term former vice president likely be able to change, and what's bound to remain the same, at least for now?

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Kevin Sneader, Global Managing Partner at McKinsey & Company, provides perspective on what corporate business leaders are thinking during the global coronavirus crisis

Should big business care about small business in these times?

The answer is yes and for many reasons. First, small business is the lifeblood of our economies. 45% of employment in emerging countries and 70% in the OECD comes from small and medium enterprises. Moreover, these enterprises have been badly hit by the crisis. Surveys indicate as many as 50% of European small to medium enterprises feel they may not survive over 12 months. While SMEs are relying on government support, larger companies do have a role to play. After all, this includes prioritizing small business and procurement by locking in demand for multiple years, thus facilitating access to good credit, paying receivables to small business in time and where possible, ahead of schedule. Cash flow matters most when you're small. Looking out for small businesses that have lower resilience. For example, financial institutions can lend more and in doing so, ensure deeper customer relationships in the future.

In his latest Financial Times op-ed, Martin Wolf argues that the US global role is at stake in this election and that a Trump re-election would undo America's legacy of democratic leadership in the world. Ian Bremmer and Eurasia Group's Jeffrey Wright grabbed the Red Pen to argue that a Trump presidency exists in part because of Americans' rejection of the US's post-war leadership role, and these feelings run deeper than the article suggests.

Today, we're taking The Red Pen to a recent op-ed published in The Financial Times from my good friend, the chief economics commentator Martin Wolf. Martin argues the global role of the United States is at stake on November 3rd, and that a Trump reelection would undo America's legacy of democratic leadership in the world. There's been a lot of this sort of thing recently. I know, we did it once, but if we do it twice, it's all over and I'm not there. To be clear, we don't totally reject what Martin is presenting in this piece. Rather, we'd argue that a Trump presidency exists because there were feelings that were present in the United States before he came along and they run a lot deeper than the article suggests. In other words, it's really not all about Trump.

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"The top priority will be to announce to the world that the United States they've known for decades is back." Former top Obama diplomat and current CEO of the think tank New America Anne-Marie slaughter predicts an American revival on the global stage if Joe Biden wins the presidency. But at a time when the United States has never been more divided, can any nation, even the world's most powerful, be a global leader if it cannot even keep its own house in order? Ian Bremmer's conversation with Slaughter is part of a new episode of GZERO World.

Watch the episode: How a "President Biden" could reshape US foreign policy

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