North Korean elites increasingly think Kim Jong Un is a weak leader, new study says

  • Conditions are ripe to prepare for Korean peninsula unification, a Rand study said.
  • If Kim Jong Un were to die suddenly, North Korea's elite would probably not choose a successor from Kim's family, said Bruce Bennett, senior defense analyst at Rand, citing defected senior officials.
  • "North Korea's elites have heavily gone into being entrepreneurs," Bennett said.

More and more North Korean elites think dictator Kim Jong Un is a weak leader, according to new research published Thursday from Rand Corp. citing senior officials who have defected.

"Kim Jong Un appears increasingly to the elites as ineffective and not a particularly good leader, which is likely how he's viewed now," said Bruce Bennett, senior defense analyst at research organization Rand. "Other than North Korea's weapons and [the] ballistic missiles of this regime, Kim Jong Un doesn't really have a lot to make him feel empowered," Bennett said, noting that recent events such as the murder of the dictator's older half brother show how the leader is "clearly paranoid."

Moreover, if Kim were to die suddenly, North Korea's elites would probably not choose a successor from Kim's family, ending their dominance since the state's founding more than half a century ago, Bennett said, based on his interviews with defectors.

"North Korea's elites have heavily gone into being entrepreneurs," Bennett said. "They would look to set up an economy like the Chinese which is what the Chinese have been asking them to do."

More than two-thirds of North Korea's trade is with China, giving Beijing significant economic leverage on the rogue state. At the same time, Chinese authorities do not want North Korea to implode as it would likely spark a refugee crisis into China's economically struggling northeastern region.

South Korean leaders have supported unification of the peninsula but have been ineffective — the North has strongly been against it.

From his interviews and research, Rand's Bennett believes that both sides can effectively prepare for unification by improving policy in five areas. The key is winning over North Korea's ruling elites, who see less of a future under Kim. Rather than severely punishing all of the elites — estimated in the hundreds of thousands — for their participation in the dictatorship, Bennett said South Korea could show their support for the ruling class':

1. Individual safety and security

2. Individual position

3. Wealth

4. Family safety and position

5. Societal importance

"Peaceful unification could well mean the end of the North Korean nuclear threat especially if it's economically thriving," Bennett said.

Amid increasing tensions around North Korea in the last several weeks, President Donald Trump wants to pressure North Korea economically and diplomatically to end the nuclear threat, but the U.S. is "prepared to defend" itself and its allies, top Trump administration officials said Wednesday in a statement.

The Korea Foundation sponsored the Rand report, which was conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the Rand National Security Research Division.