The Weekly Wire: For Your Situational Awareness 4/30/20
Regional Implications of Kim Jong Un’s Health
Aaron Lin, Research Associate
For the past two weeks, there’s been speculation about the health of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who has not been seen since just before he was scheduled to undergo cardiovascular surgery on April 12. The procedure was reportedly an angioplasty to insert a stent into a blocked artery, though it is unclear if this was the actual procedure, if there was a more invasive procedure involved, or if the procedure had somehow gone wrong. What is clear is that Kim has had a raft of health problems exacerbated by his smoking, overwork, and obesity issues. This would likely lengthen the full recovery period from any cardiovascular procedure. Therefore, while no one can completely rule out that Kim may have already died, it is also possible that North Korean officials want to give Kim enough time to fully recover so that he is not seen in any sort of incapacitated or partially recovered state. Kim has a cult of personality that reveres him as a god-like figure, making his public image of paramount importance.
But given that the world is discussing scenarios of what would happen in the event that Kim Jong Un does die, it may be worth discussing what would happen were Kim to die either now or in the near future, possibly from another health-related issue. Kim has not selected a successor yet, leaving open the potential for a large power vacuum in his absence. Were Kim to pass away, militaries in the entire region around North Korea would likely go on high alert in order to prepare for the risk of internal instability. Surveillance into North Korea will become increasingly important, as well as attempting to track the location of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. One concerning scenario would be if North Korea decided to sell some of its missiles or nuclear technology on the black market. The need for persistent surveillance to address such a scenario would dramatically increase the chance of accidents between ships and aircraft on surveillance missions.
Another nightmare scenario involves the possibility of millions of North Koreans trying to flee across the border into China, creating a massive refugee crisis. While this may draw China’s attention away from other hotspots like the South China Sea, it could also prove a test of recent reforms to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). In 2016, the PLA streamlined its force structure, improved its planning for mobilization in response to emergencies, and to increase the speed of its decision-making. If these reforms work, it could allow the PLA to more efficiently and rapidly allocate resources to its Northeastern provinces, while still maintaining a strong presence in disputed territories. The PLA’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic is one of the first major tests of the PLA’s new structure since the 2016 reforms. In the event of a North Korean instability spillover scenario, militaries in the region may get an opportunity to evaluate the capabilities of the PLA under heretofore unheard of pressure.
On April 24, the US Air Force’s Space and Missile Center announced that the fifth Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) satellite reached another milestone after thermal vacuum testing was conducted on the satellite beginning on April 16. The fifth SBIRS satellite is expected to be launched in 2021. Lockheed Martin serves as the prime contractor for the SBIRS program and was awarded $1.8 billion to produce the fifth and sixth SBIRS satellites. Six SBIRS satellites have already been launched of which four are in geosynchronous earth orbit (GEO) and two are in highly elliptical orbit. The satellites will provide missile defense and warning capabilities to the US armed services. The US Air Force had originally planned to acquire eight missile warning satellites but decided not to move forward with SBIRS seven and eight in favor of the next generation program dubbed the Next Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared (OPIR). The OPIR is currently in the development phase but the system will consist of five satellites – two will be polar based while the other three will be in geosynchronous orbit. Northrop Grumman is developing the polar based OPIR satellites and Lockheed Martin is developing the GEO based satellites. The next generation satellites are on an ambitious plan to be delivered to the newly formed Space Force by 2025, though if the SBIRS satellite program is an example, the Next Generation OPIR will likely face higher than anticipated costs and timeline delays given the complexity of the project.
On April 24, Thailand decided to postpone its purchase of submarines from China due to coronavirus-related budget cuts. In late April, the Thai government announced that the defense budget would be reduced by $555 million, amounting to an 8 percent cut to the budget. In 2017, Thailand signed a deal with China to receive three S26T submarines for $1.1 billion, with the cost of the submarines to be distributed into 17 payments over 11 years. Thailand has received one of the submarines but will need to push back its expected delivery for the other two, since it needs to redirect funds towards combating the coronavirus pandemic. All three submarine were originally expected to be delivered by 2027, but the new timeline for delivery is not clear at this time.
Australia has sold two of its recently retired Adelaide-class frigates to Chile for a cost of $110 million. The deal has seen the former HMAS Melbourne and HMAS Newcastle recommissioned as the Almirante Latorre and Capitan Prat this month ahead of their voyage to Chile in May. The ships were valued at $45 million each. The remaining $20 million was allocated for the training of the new crew along with the necessary data and stores for the ship’s operations. This also included the basic refit of the frigates that included the removal of some equipment, including the vessel’s close in weapon system.