Meet Kim Jong Un’s Unauthorized Biographer
Anna Fifield has written a deeply-sourced, rigorously researched portrait of one of the most elusive–and ruthless–leaders on the world stage.
Few books about North Korea could rightfully be called “page-turners,” but Anna Fifield’s The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, is one of them. In it, Fifield has painstakingly reconstructed the life of Kim Jong Un from his early childhood through his education in Switzerland, and on to the years of grooming to become the third member of his family to rule over the ironically-named Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
Currently Beijing Bureau Chief for The Washington Post, and previously the paper’s Tokyo Bureau Chief, Fifield has made a dozen trips to North Korea and has become one of the most authoritative journalists on the country. Between her deep sourcing on the goings-on inside the country and the interviews she conducted with virtually every person who has ever met Kim Jong Un (including yours truly on the subject of my surprise 2013 dinner with “the Marshal”), Fifield has crafted a rigorously-reported current affairs book that unfolds like a soap opera: rich with family drama, palace intrigue, and murder. Layered on top of this chronology is just enough historical context–and just when you need it–to give even North Korea neophytes a well-rounded picture of how this 70 year-old country became such a basket case, and the extremes to which Kim Jong Un will go to keep his privileged place at the top.
But there’s plenty of red meat for North Korea watchers as well. Fifield expands on the material she gathered when she found, living in the US, Kim Jong Un’s aunt and uncle–the couple who masqueraded as his parents and took care of the 12 year-old future dictator during his time in Switzerland; there are new details about Kim Jong Nam (KJU’s half-brother, assassinated in Malaysia) pulled from an aborted book project started by Ri Nam Ok (Kim Jong Il’s niece who spent a lonely childhood growing up in isolated compound with Jong Nam); the revelation that the first folks who dreamt up sending Dennis Rodman to North Korea did not work at VICE, but at the CIA; great color about Kim Jong Il’s Japanese sushi chef Kenji Fujimoto’s first run-in with a 5 or 6-year old Kim Jong Un; and an entire chapter devoted to the fall from grace of Kim Jong Un’s uncle Jang–a close advisor to both Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un, he became one of the most famous examples of how ruthless the young Kim could be.
I caught up with Fifield to talk about the process of putting this extraordinary book together, nuclear diplomacy in the time of Trump, and how Kim Jong Un’s time in the picturesque Swiss town of Bern may have helped bring out the totalitarian in him.
Jason Mojica: Can you talk to me a bit about the process behind this book? You tracked down so many incredible sources: How much of that work was specifically for this book, and how much was the result of you just doing what you do day in and day out covering Asia for the Washington Post?
Anna Fifield: It started just in the course of my job. Like the aunt and the uncle who I tracked down in the US, I wrote a story for the Washington Post about them and it went on the front page, so that was very much part of my work. Also the interviews with Kenji Fujimoto in Japan, who I went to see twice, that was very much Washington Post first, but I wrote more about him as this unlikely Kim Jong Un expert than I did about what he had to say about Kim Jong Un himself. So I used very different parts of the interviews and research between the paper and the book. But after that I very systematically went out and tried to find all the people who’d ever met [Kim] before, and when I started it was quite a small group. When I was in South Korea I’d gone to meet people who had been to Kim Jong Il’s funeral in North Korea and had met Kim Jong un for like, five seconds. At that time, five seconds was enough to justify going to meet them and asking them about their impressions because there were so few people who’d even had that amount of exposure to him. I did go to Switzerland to try and find out about his life there, and that was actually really difficult because he basically only had four friends while he was at high school in Switzerland, and those four friends have, you know, been hounded by journalists for the past ten years, have a limited number of stories to tell, and are clearly very sick of telling those stories over and over again. I was in touch with only one of his friends from that time, the others didn’t respond. I also came up against this kind of Swiss discretion and love of privacy in that no one from the school wanted to talk either. But I was able to go into the school authority in the town where he went to high school, and they showed me through the curriculum and I was able to get a sense of the kind of things he would have learned, and I did walk through his high school and sit outside his apartment. I was just trying to walk in his steps as much as I could and kind of think of the kind of influences that he felt as a person growing up.
JM: The time you spent getting to know his physical environs really comes through in the picture you paint of Kim Jong Un’s life in Switzerland. And as you detail his life in this liberal democracy, what was happening in 1996 both in terms of pop culture and world politics, and the kinds of ideas he might have been exposed to, I thought, “well, all of this kind of debunks the idea that exposure to the outside world could serve as some sort of antidote for dictatorial tendencies.” You know, that notion that “oh, he received a Western education, was corrupted by dazzling western pop culture, and has had a taste of what freedom is like…” that this would somehow change his attitude.
AF: I actually think it’s the exact opposite of that and his time in Switzerland–more than anything else perhaps–would have shown to him that outside of North Korea he’s nobody. He would have been another normal kid at school. Nothing special. You know, he lived in a very ordinary apartment, and went to a very ordinary school, so he didn’t get any of the kind of special treatment and the adulation that he was used to even as a child in North Korea. So I think this showed him why he needs to perpetuate the system and hold on to power in North Korea: because it’s only in North Korea that he can be this kind of demigod. If he was in a liberal democracy, he’s just another chubby immigrant kid.
JM: Let’s talk about Kim Jong Un’s uncle, Jang Song Thaek. Embarrassingly, it wasn’t until I talked to you for your book last year that I realized that I’d actually met him at a dinner during my trip to North Korea, having filed him away as “the guy Kim Jong Un rolled his eyes at,” and having convinced myself that he could not have been the same diminished man I saw in photos being dragged out of a meeting of the Central Committee of the Workers’ Party. Take us through, if you will, the short version of the roller coaster life of uncle Jang and his untimely demise.
AF: He really did have a roller coaster life! He was in and out of the good books many times. He was a very mercurial character by all accounts. He married into the royal family, marrying Kim Jong Un’s aunt. But he was purged several times under Kim Jong Il and came back, so it does seem that [Jang] and his wife Kim Kyong Hui did play a kind of caretaker regent role for Kim Jong Un in looking after him and helping to kind of guide him through the transition process. I know from my reporting that Uncle Jang was instrumental in getting the children to school in Switzerland, and he was really involved in all aspects of their kind of ‘apprenticeship’ from the earliest years. But Kim Jong Un showed how ruthless and tactical he could be in that once Uncle Jang had served his purpose, he was quickly disposed of. It was like, nobody is so close to the family as to guarantee their survival.
So once [Jang] had helped Kim Jong Un kind of batten down the hatches and fully take control, then he simply became a threat, or a rival. He was somebody who had his own power base and his own strings that he could pull, I guess, so he had to be gotten rid of. It just shows how ruthless he was prepared to be. And the tactical part of it, I think, is the way it was done: it was so humiliating, this 7000 word diatribe that North Korea released about it. Showing his downfall to the public was a real lesson to anybody else at the top rungs of the North Korean system who might be thinking about pulling together their own power base or making their own play for power, that this is the kind of treatment you could expect if you were to do that. A strong deterrent message.
JM: How did Jang actually die, and how does that differ from some of the stories that were told about his death?
AF: We don’t exactly know, but the most reliable sources and the South Korean intelligence on this suggests that he was taken out and shot by a firing squad… a simple old execution. There are fantastical stories that have emerged, but some are less fantantastical–like the one that says that he may have been killed with an anti-aircraft gun. There is evidence that other people later were killed with anti-aircraft guns, which would just completely blow a person to smithereens and leave a little pile of pulp–that’s what happened to the defense minister, apparently. But the really fantastical story about Jang’s demise is that he was stripped naked and taken out and fed to a pack of one hundred hungry, ravenous dogs. And this first started in a Hong Kong publication that’s kind of like the Hong Kong answer to The Onion. And then it was picked up by a more serious newspaper and before you knew it, it had ricocheted around the world and become the truth, according to these reports. I mean, when I first heard it, it struck me as ridiculous… like, even North Korea would not bother to do something like that. So, I think it’s just an example of the way people expect more and more crazy tales out of North Korea and are willing to accept all sorts of stories like this without any evidence, whatsoever. And sure it’s really hard to get evidence from North Korea, but it’s not impossible. There are intelligence reports on some things that happen and once you learn about how North Korea acts, these kinds of stories seem very unlikely.
But I guess that feeds into this idea that Kim Jong Un is this cartoon character dictator who will, you know, do all of these craven brutal things–he’ll stop at nothing!
JM: Obviously it’s difficult to get information and evidence out of North Korea but why, when it comes to this country, do you suppose reporters and news outlets seem to scrap the rigor that they normally apply?
AF: I think sometimes stories are just too good to check. It’s so difficult to get first-hand information out of North Korea that some people are willing to run with very thinly-sourced or unsourced stories from inside North Korea in a way that you wouldn’t do with any other country. I think it’s partly because it’s North Korea, what are they gonna do? You know, their press department is not going to call up and ask for a correction or something. So I think there’s very little risk in running with unverified information, but it also depends a lot on what kind of publication you’re talking about. If it’s the Daily Mail from the UK or the New York Post, they have very different protocols for that sort of thing than more serious newspapers like my own.
JM: I’m curious how you navigated that challenge in this book. Obviously you have incredible sources, and you’re dealing with a lot of first-person testimony. How did you reconcile the verifiability of or lack thereof in assessing the stories, testimony, and other information you got with the challenge of writing a captivating narrative that was readable and analytical?
AF: There’s different considerations. With some of the South Korean intelligence on North Korea, it has a really hit and miss record. Half the time they’re right, and half the time they’re wrong. The South Korean intelligence service has “killed off” people only to have them reappear a couple of months later, quite healthy. So I do look at those intelligence leaks, but I always take them with a grain of salt. So sometimes if I see a story about North Korea that smells a bit fishy, or that I cannot stand up, I tend not to write it. I tend to sit on it and wait for more information to come out, and often it does. Sometimes if people have been killed or purged, they’ll be removed from state media or their name will disappear from the politburo lineup at the next reshuffle, so you can see signs like that. Sometimes we’ve seen the South Koreans report that someone has been purged and the North Koreans themselves have put out an announcement–obviously that stacks up. With some of the uncle Jang stuff, it was a former head of the South Korean spy service who wrote a book in Korean about that, and I’ve spent a lot of time talking with him about uncle Jang, so I felt assured… he told me a lot that made me think he really knew what he was talking about, and that also turned out to be true.
But a big challenge for reporters covering North Korea is how to deal with refugees from North Korea who have pretty terrible stories to tell, some of them extremely terrible, but because there’s now this kind of market in South Korea and Japan for defector testimony–they get paid for telling their stories–which has created an incentive for people to sensationalize what happened to them in North Korea. With that kind of stuff I am very careful about checking as much as I can, and also being very careful to ask them about the stuff they know about, to ask them about their daily lives and the kind of mundane everyday stuff. I would never ask a farmer where North Korea’s uranium enrichment program is, but you know I have seen interviews where people do ask things like that and it’s like that’s ridiculous, you would not ask the equivalent of a New Zealand farmer or something like that. I think it’s just about assessing each person individually and what they can speak to.
JM: Does Kim Jong Un have any redeeming qualities?
[There is a pause]
AF: No, he does not.
He has defied all expectations by being smart and strategic and having a game plan all along, you know, very assiduously working on the nuclear program to show strength, to bolster his military credentials to perhaps stave off any dissent in the military ranks–definitely to try and stave off the United States. And now he’s working on the economy and trying to develop North Korea a little so he can tell the ordinary people that their lives are getting better. He’s shown himself to be much more calculating than anyone ever thought he could be, but I think these are not redeeming features because of the way he’s done it. He’s done it by killing family members, by tightening up security along the border, by increasing penalties on people who try to defect, by being ruthless. Everything that he has done has been about staying in power. He does not care about the North Korean people whatsoever. He cares about his family dynasty, staying in power, staying in control, continuing to live in these mansions… making sure that the system can continue and that his sister and his wife and these people who are close to him continue to benefit. He knows that if his regime were to collapse the future would not be bright for him, so that’s all he cares about.
JM: What about people you met who, at least at one point, had good relations with him? Did they express any affection for him?
AF: Yeah, the aunt and uncle who looked after him in Switzerland, who posed as his parents, they were trying to show his good side. But it’s difficult to know… first of all they were with him when he was fourteen years old–it was a very long time ago–but also when they spoke to me the uncle was trying to get back into North Korea, so they were really trying to put a gloss on him and make him out to be misunderstood. So even when I was sitting in their house with them and watching TV, there was a missile launch that had happened in North Korea and the footage came up on TV and his uncle muttered, ‘they never say anything good about him,’ lamenting the fact that the South Korean press was just focusing on the threat of him. So I get that they saw some redeeming features, but I did not.
JM: In The Great Successor you’ve pieced together a portrait of a child brought up in a truly unique circumstance. I wonder, at any point did you feel a pang of empathy for him, or at least sympathy? How much of the man he became do you suppose was nature versus nurture?
AF: I think it’s all nurture. He was born into this very cloistered, very lavish environment. He’s never known anything else. When he was twelve years old, this devastating famine broke out in North Korea that killed maybe one or two million people. He may not have ever have even seen that… he may not have known about that at the time because he was so isolated. So I think he was very cut off from reality, and raised from as long as he can remember to think that he was extremely special: the chosen one–or at least one of the chosen ones with his brothers. If you were 8 years old and were given a general’s uniform and had real life generals saluting you and bowing to you, it would be very difficult to grow up any other way than how he has. Even while going to school in Switzerland, he certainly enjoyed the good life in terms of traveling around and going to the Mediterranean and Italy and Disney, and seeing basketball games and things like that, but we don’t know that he had much more exposure to real life than that. I think he lived a pretty closeted life in Switzerland and always knew that this was his destiny to go back to North Korea and be part of this royal family. I think it would have been extremely difficult, if you are an 18 year-old prince from North Korea, to choose to leave there, to say, “I opt out of this, I’m going to live in hiding by myself for the rest of my life in America,” or something like that. It would be extremely difficult to think that way for anyone. In that way I guess I empathize in thinking that there really was no other option for him.
JM: But it seems his older brother, Kim Jong Nam, took a slightly different path–falling in with the diplobrat set during his own schooling in Switzerland and becoming something of a public nuisance upon his return to North Korea, leading to his deportation…
AF: I think he really did struggle against the restrictions that were placed on him in North Korea, and he did fall out of favor, more because of Kim Jong Un’s mother’s maneuverings than anything he did himself. So he did opt out, but only to some extent. He still remained part of the North Korean system, he seemed to have been raising money for North Korea and profiting off of his relationship with the family. He did go back a bit and he did enjoy this life of excess: of Macau casinos and three wives and houses in various capitals of Asia, so I think he also did benefit. He didn’t entirely opt out of being part of the North Korean royal family.
JM: You covered the Trump-Kim summit in Singapore last year. In your book, you write about talking heads in DC tearing their hair out, crying that “this isn’t the way diplomacy is done!” But to date, there is no existing recipe for how to deal with North Korea successfully, so why do you suppose there’s such reverence for this imagined diplomatic playbook?
AF: I don’t know why there’s such reverence for that diplomatic playbook, because it hasn’t worked–mostly because North Korea has reneged on every single deal it’s ever signed, but in parts the US hasn’t kept its promises in previous agreements either. I thought that maybe this was a unique situation where you had this unconventional American president, you had this unconventional North Korean president, and they both–one more than the other–run a very top-down administration, so I just thought that this might be a moment where this could work. Where they could hash out some kind of big picture deal that their people could then go work out. It’s difficult to say now that we know what happened in Hanoi and what a disaster that was, but I still think it’s possible to do this because Kim Jong Un’s incentives have not changed. He still desperately needs economic development, he needs those sanctions to be lifted, he needs to be seen as a normal and responsible leader of a nuclear nation. He wants to complete this makeover that he started last year. The fact is that Kim Jong Un knows he has this unique window of opportunity: that the United States will have elections in 2020 and it’s not guaranteed that Donald Trump will be reelected–though the North Koreans did go out and consult a fortune teller to find out of he would be reelected I hear, and the answer was ‘yes.’ So there’s the prospect that Trump will not be around for much longer, but Moon Jae In–the South Korean president that has been so instrumental in bringing them together and is still trying to work to bring them together–he will definitely be out of office in 2022, so Kim Jong Un knows that he has this kind of perfect storm now where the three characters are together and want to be part of this. But also, Xi Jinping is not going anywhere but I think he also wants Kim Jong Un to get some kind of small victory and to continue to be encouraged to head down this path. China wants economic development and more normal behavior from North Korea, so everyone has an incentive for this to continue. The problem is, after Hanoi, I don’t know how they get back to it.
JM: Knowing what you know about Kim Jong Un’s character and his goals (which seem to revolve around staying in power), if you could create your own “Destiny Pictures” vision for a brighter future, I wonder what you would imagine as a feasible, positive outcome for North Korea? Or at least, what’s a small bit of progress–a realistic positive step you can imagine happening in your lifetime?
AF: The most likely option is that things stay pretty much the same as they are. Maybe the economy improves a bit, but North Korea continues along the way it’s been. I think a feasible future for North Korea–and something they may tentatively try to do–is to become a bit more like Vietnam, or even China, where the political system has remained pretty much the same: the Communist party still remains very much in power and there’s been no political reform, but there has been this economic reform and opening. Both countries have been able to become capitalist while remaining communist in name. But I think this is extra difficult for North Korea because both Vietnam and China had different leaders–had leaders with different surnames–it’s not a dynasty. So I think for Kim Jong Un, it’s not about just convincing people that the party should remain in power, but that he should remain the head of the party. Even in opaque China there’s jockeying for these positions, and there are factions–people go up and people go down–there is some movement there within the ranks. So I don’t know how North Korea could actually do this–you can’t have economic opening without having information coming in, without having outsiders coming in, without having foreign investors. So I don’t know how the North Korean regime could continue to perpetuate the myth that they are the right people to run the country if there is more information openly swirling around.
But having said that, I live in China, and China’s doing an excellent job of keeping everybody under control and under surveillance all the time. There’s no freedom of speech and they’re monitoring what people say about sensitive subjects, locking people up for maybe having different thoughts… so if China were to share the technology that it’s developed in terms of surveillance, facial recognition and that kind of stuff, then maybe they could keep hold of the populace for longer. I do not think that Kim Jong Un can be Deng Xiaoping and throw open the doors and embark on really radical reform.
JM: That sounds like a properly pessimistic optimistic vision of the future.
AF: Yeahhhhh…. But I do think is that he has to do something. He can’t do nothing like his father did and just hang on through a famine and the collapse of the Soviet Union, because he’s now 35 years-old. He could easily be there thirty or forty more years, so just muddling through is not going to cut it with this guy. He needs to show some sense of improvement. He can’t continue to just tell people that their lives are getting better, people need to feel it. So that’s why I think he has this incentive now to try and grow the economy within these constraints, and to make sure that there’s a sense–out in the boondocks as well as in glittering Pyongyang–that life is getting better.
JM: It’s the economy, stupid!
AF: That’s right!
The Washington Post has an exclusive excerpt of Fifield’s book here, but don’t be shy about buying your very own copy of The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un. You won’t regret it.
Follow Anna Fifield on Twitter
Follow The Modernist on Twitter