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Anna Fifield in Pyongyang. Photo/Fifield collection/Supplied

The Kiwi journalist behind the acclaimed Kim Jong-un biography

Anna Fifield's revelations about North Korea’s secretive leader have stirred top-level intrigue. Clare de Lore talks to the author about the intricacies of writing The Great Successor.

Of the millions of people living in Beijing, New Zealand journalist Anna Fifield knows she stands out in the crowd.

Still receiving acclaim for a book on North Korea’s mercurial leader Kim Jong-un, Fifield is now running the Beijing bureau of the Washington Post. It’s a plum job for a foreign correspondent but tougher than most postings: facial-recognition technology is a vital tool for Chinese authorities and a daily reality for Fifield as she reports, undaunted, on the myriad problems facing Chinese President Xi Jinping, including the Hong Kong democracy protests and the trade war with the US.

She was equally dogged in researching The Great Successor: the Secret Rise and Rule of Kim Jong-un, revealing a treasure trove of new information on Kim and his oppressive regime. Fifield tapped previously unknown sources including old school friends from his time studying in Switzerland, a Japanese chef who worked for the Kim family and became his playmate, and others whose identities she protected so they would not risk potentially fatal consequences from speaking to her. The brazen public assassination of his half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, at Kuala Lumpur Airport in 2017 stands as stark evidence that the North Korean leader is able to extend his reach beyond borders to eliminate enemies or rivals.

Read more: The secrets of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un

Tellingly, Fifield’s North Korean contacts around the world no longer return her calls, and she expects she will never again be able to visit North Korea.

North Korea watchers in academia, politics and journalism are fascinated by Fifield’s insights into the psyche and background of the man who, once he became leader, refined and extended the ruthless regime of control first introduced by his grandfather, Kim Il-sung. Who knew, for example, that the spoilt future leader, at the age of seven, would be given a car specially modified so he could reach its pedals and drive; that he carried a Colt 45 pistol at age 11; and that, later, living under an assumed identity at his Swiss secondary school, he would study human rights, women’s rights and the development of democracy?

On his return to live in North Korea and ultimately take over from his father, the young man with the odd haircut and unfashionable but ubiquitous tracksuit, beloved of North Korea’s elite, would quickly forget any notions of democracy and double down on his purge of rivals and critics. His uncle was publicly arrested, put on trial and shot by firing squad. A general who nodded off in a meeting while the President was speaking was executed with an anti-aircraft gun.

General David Petraeus, who was director of the CIA when Kim Jong-un became leader, describes The Great Successor as “vivid, compelling and illuminating”, while Wendy Sherman, a former US negotiator with North Korea, calls it “the quintessential bible on Kim Jong-un”.

During her time as a Listener columnist. Photo/Supplied

Fifield, 43, has extensive experience in Asia. Before becoming the Washington Post’s Beijing bureau chief, she reported for the newspaper from Tokyo, and prior to that, for the Financial Times from Seoul. She is also an occasional correspondent for the Listener. She’s now facing the challenge of reporting in an increasingly hostile environment in China. Old hands in diplomatic and journalism circles compare Xi’s grip on the nation to Mao’s regime, despite the bright lights and outwardly Westernised ways of cities such as Shanghai.

Originally from Hastings, Fifield describes her background as a “standard Mum, Dad, sister, brother, cat, dog family”. Her father, Brian, was a book-loving policeman and her mother, Christine, a dental assistant. Fifield spoke to the Listener from her apartment in Beijing, where she lives with her eight-year-old son, Jude.

Since the book came out, have you been under greater suspicion and surveillance than before in your work in China?

Yes, but not because of the book. It is because I write for a prominent US newspaper based in Washington DC, and the Chinese are in the middle of a trade war with the Trump Administration. The influence of my newspaper makes me a target for surveillance so I am assuming I am monitored relentlessly while working, maybe beyond it even.

Is our call being monitored?

Maybe. I am talking to you on my American phone, but on my Chinese phone I always assume they are listening.

How do you go about your job when access to official sources is generally denied to Western media, let alone getting to independent sources?

It’s getting more and more difficult, almost by the month, to get access to officials. And even though I go to official press conferences about Hong Kong, or whatever, it’s very unlikely that a foreign journalist would be called upon to ask a question. The state media are called and they just ask patsy questions. This environment of fear in China makes it very difficult for analysts, experts or university professors to talk at all, let alone freely.

Kim Jong-un. Photo/Getty Images

What are your chances of being able to speak freely with ordinary Chinese citizens?

I want to quote Chinese people and give their perspective, but that is difficult, too. There is all-encompassing surveillance. So, even if I tried to talk to ordinary people on the streets, there’s facial-recognition technology everywhere. There’s also a lot of surveillance of the phone-messaging apps and social media that people use to communicate with each other. It makes it extremely difficult for me to have a conversation with a Chinese person that could not be monitored in some way, whether it’s the authorities looking for my face with facial-recognition cameras and then seeing who I’m talking to, or just reading my WeChat messages.

Your book on Kim dispels the idea that he is an out-of-control madman …

What I wanted to show was that, right now, he is very confident and strong. He has defied all [Western intelligence] expectations about him. And I wanted to illustrate why we are putting the people of North Korea and the outside world in peril if we don’t take him seriously. Contrary to the caricatures of him, he is very calculating and has managed to make really surprising advances with the nuclear programme and the missile programme. He has managed to play Donald Trump like a fiddle when it comes to diplomacy and get what he wants, so far, without having to give up anything at all.

Are you aware of whether a version of your book has been smuggled into North Korea?

I assume people in the halls of power in North Korea have read it, because it’s their job to keep track of everything that’s said about their leader. But I haven’t had any specific feedback from there. The North Koreans no longer return my calls or messages, which is a pretty good sign they’re very aware of the book. Something like this would be really blasphemous in North Korea, where Kim Jong-un is a kind of quasi-deity who can do no wrong. People would not want to be seen with it or be found talking about it.

Anna Fifield and son Jude pose with President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama during Fifield’s years as a White House correspondent in 2011. Photo/Fifield collection/Supplied

Would his officials have brought it to his attention?

Probably not – you wouldn’t want to be the person who brought it to Kim Jong-un, even though I have called him smart and strategic. There’s a lot in there that he would be unhappy with.

China’s President Xi has his hands full right now with multiple challenges, including this belligerent North Korean leader. In terms of Hong Kong, how did he so badly misjudge the situation?

The Chinese leadership has misjudged a number of things – the trade war, Trump, and how China has become a completely unifying issue in Washington DC. They have also misjudged what was going on in Hong Kong. This is very tricky for the Chinese leadership to manage because they need Hong Kong to continue with a special status – being the financial capital of Asia and where many Chinese companies are registered. They are able to avoid US sanctions by being based in Hong Kong, so China’s not going to want to stage military intervention and risk losing that special status and recognition in the outside world. I also think they’re not going to want to risk overt military intervention and have things go wrong, because if China is visibly intervening in Hong Kong, it can be blamed for everything that’s happening.

How long can they afford to have the situation in Hong Kong drag on without making some concessions to pro-democracy activists?

As this goes on it becomes more and more difficult because the first week of October is a national holiday in China. It’s the 70th anniversary this year of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, so a really key event for Xi Jinping. There’ll be a huge military parade and the flags waving and he is not going to want to risk events in Hong Kong literally raining on his parade.

Are ordinary Chinese people able to get anything approaching balanced reporting of what’s happening in Hong Kong?

No, it’s not reported at all. There is a kind of parallel internet in China where there is no Google, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram and most outside newspapers are blocked. In the past, Chinese people used virtual private networks so that they could get access to information but increasingly they don’t bother because the system blocks VPNs all the time. The vast majority of Chinese people get their news from the state media, which is very one-sided.

Fifield at Raureka School, Hastings. Photo/Fifield collection/Supplied

This is a far cry from your childhood in Hawke’s Bay. Were you always interested in news and foreign places?

I always loved learning languages and in the third form I did French and Japanese. It was the first year that Hastings Girls’ High offered Japanese. I did French all the way through to university and some German as well. In the sixth form, I was also doing art history and classics and a teacher came to me and said, “You know, none of this stuff will be any use to you in the outside world – you should do accounting instead.” I just recoiled at that. When I started travelling and was able to get out a few words in French, I thought, how much more useful French was to me than accounting would ever have been. And, as a teenager, I was such a geek that when other people had pop stars on their walls I had posters from travel agents that I’d gone and asked for.

In the book’s acknowledgments, you credit your father, Brian, with your love of reading – how did he influence you?

As a small child, I remember him taking me to the Hastings Public Library. He is a great reader. We would sit together and read, and he would give me general knowledge quizzes from various books we’d picked up from the library or from garage sales. He was always thirsty for knowledge. He has lived in Christchurch for the past 20 years, and last time I was there, we went to the new Christchurch Library, which is spectacular. Even after 43 years, we still go to the library together. I try to model that same behaviour with my son, to share a love of reading with him.

Fifield credits her father’s influence for her love of reading. Photo/Fifield collection/Supplied

And your mother Christine’s support enabled you to write The Great Successor?

My mother had lived in small-town New Zealand for years, and suddenly she came to live in Tokyo with us for the full four years. I knew that I would be doing a lot of travelling for the job and, as a single mother, I wasn’t going to leave my son behind in the country. So she came and looked after my son and freed me to travel and write the book. Now she’s back home in Havelock North.

Away from work, what do you and Jude get up to?

Our life here is actually pretty good. We get to go out on to the streets of China, we live in a nice apartment complex with lots of kids running around the playground, and we go and climb the Great Wall almost every weekend. We are both studying Chinese. It’s quite a stark contrast to my difficult work life.

Is there a chance you’ll come back to live in New Zealand some time?

It’s really hard to leave a newspaper that is flourishing, so I don’t think I’ll be coming home anytime soon, but maybe when my son goes to university. I love coming home to New Zealand, swimming at Lake Taupō, eating Twisties and being with my friends and family.

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