• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ
Kim Jong-un. Photo/Getty Images

The secrets of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un

Kiwi journalist Anna Fifield’s exposé on Kim Jong-un is irreverent, entertaining and invaluable.

About the time Kim Jong-un became leader of North Korea, a high American official confessed, in a burst of honesty possibly born out of frustration, that he learnt more from two novels about North Korea than he did from reading the papers prepared by the State Department. One book he cited was The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013. The novel was vivid, though hardly the stuff on which foreign policies should be based.

Rather more is known about North Korea after the nearly eight years since Kim Jong-un came to power. In The Great Successor: the Secret Rise and Rule of Kim Jong-un, Anna Fifield, a New Zealander now working for the Washington Post, has made a formidable contribution to information about the Kim family, particularly the present inheritor of the dynasty, but also about North Korea itself. There was an abundance of mysteries when Kim Jong-un succeeded: How did the country produce nuclear weapons despite famine and sanctions? Would the political caste system survive? Could North Korea continue as a closed society?

Read more: The Kiwi journalist behind the acclaimed Kim Jong-un biography

Fifield, in an outstanding piece of investigative journalism, tracked down some of those who cared for Kim when he was a child and found the Swiss schools he attended as a teenager. She talked to the sushi chef employed by the Kim palace who was asked to become a playmate for Kim Jong-un and elder brother, Kim Jong-chol, both isolated from children of their own ages. Kim Jong-un developed a passion for US basketball while in Switzerland, and was otherwise a mediocre student. In Switzerland, he was cared for by an aunt and enrolled as the son of a North Korean diplomat.

Fifield interviewed scores of North Koreans, some of whom live in the country, some elsewhere. Those living abroad were, for the most part, as unwilling to have their real names used as those living within the country. North Korean authorities have a long reach to any who show disloyalty to the rule of Kim Jong-un. She ran across those who would talk about North Korea for a price, but on ethical grounds rejected their offerings.

Anna Fifield. Photo/Supplied

Kim Jong-un was not Kim Jong-il’s eldest son, but Kim Jong-chol showed more interest in guitar playing and the music of Eric Clapton than in honing the type of leadership skills required to continue the dynasty.

Fifield drily observes, “None of this was known in North Korea, though. The vast majority of North Koreans didn’t even know that the Dear Leader had a son, let alone that he knew the chords to Wonderful Tonight.

“Meanwhile, the 22-year-old Kim Jong-un went on to graduate – with honours, of course.”

Fifield writes in a lively way, frequently irreverently, almost always entertainingly.

Once installed in power, Kim took several significant actions. He sought to establish his own legitimacy by taking a series of titles, a few outlandish. He sealed the borders. He made sure that his authority was not challenged. His uncle, Jang Song-thaek, who was close to China and had his own ideas about the country’s development, was executed. So was General Hyon Yong-chol, who was denounced for, among other things, falling asleep while Kim was talking. His execution was by the unusual method of being shot with anti-aircraft guns. Kim Jong-nam, Kim’s half-brother, was assassinated at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport. He had, among other activities, become an informant for the CIA.

Kim announced a dual policy of economic development and development of nuclear weapons. He judged that North Koreans needed to feel that their living standards were improving. He rejected the Chinese path to development of opening the economy, and instead tolerated some private enterprise, not giving it a nod of approval but something closer to looking the other way. That enabled some of the population, at least, to feel that their living standards were improving. Farmers were allowed to keep some of their produce to sell privately. He developed nuclear weapons and missiles, the latest missile apparently powerful enough to reach the US mainland. Parts of Pyongyang were developed into a showcase city, enabling those loyal to Kim to enjoy some high living. The political caste systems of the “loyalists”, the “waverers” and the “hostiles” continued, affecting where families lived and what their prospects were. So did the extensive prison camps.

Should world policy towards North Korea be influenced by The Great Successor? For this reader, Fifield has settled three things. First, Kim must be taken seriously: the haircut, the suits, the spectacles and his overweight body all lend themselves to comic depiction. But he is determined, smart and ruthless.

Second, the development of nuclear weapons is a matter of pride for North Koreans. One of the reasonable assumptions about the country’s nuclear weapons has been that the Kim family wanted to keep them to avoid any attempt at regime change. That still holds, but the pride in their rapid development also makes North Korea’s total renunciation of them improbable.

Third, the peaceful reunification of the Korean peninsula would mean an end to the Kim dynasty – and Kim Jong-un has no intention of allowing that to happen.

These issues have often been debated. The answers provided by The Great Successor should be basic policy assumptions.

The Great Successor: The Secret Rise and Rule of Kim Jong-un, by Anna Fifield (Hachette, $37.99)

Stuart McMillan is a senior fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies, Victoria University of Wellington.

This article was first published in the August 31, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.