July 18, 2019
July 18, 2019
“The great successor”: making sense of the rise and rise of Kim Jong Un
“The great successor”: making sense of the rise and rise of Kim Jong Un
A new book paints a compelling, if limited, picture of the young leader’s life and changing country
June 19th, 2019

Month in Review

You can buy “The Great Successor” by Anna Fifield here. 

When Kim Jong Un took the podium beside his father at a military parade in North Korea’s capital in October 2010, Anna Fifield points out in her new book, he was surrounded by men whose days were numbered.

First among these was Kim Jong Il himself: he’d be dead in just over a year, leaving his son a country still reeling from a disastrous currency reform program and relentlessly pursuing weapons of mass destruction.

Then there was Vice Marshal Ri Yong Ho, the country’s top military official, who would be unceremoniously purged just two years later.

And, of course, there was the unfortunate Jang Song Thaek, who had spent the last decade amassing power and prestige and, many say, advocating for economic reform and a shift towards a Chinese-style political system. His fate was the most gruesome: publicly accused of treachery and sentenced to death in December 2013.

When Kim Jong Un came to power, no-one expected he would last very long. Victor Cha, most famously, stuck his neck out and claimed that the North Korean government had months to live. He was far from the only one.

Seven years on, Kim and his merry band of loyalists and technocrats have proven them all wrong. Regime collapse, long seen as an inevitability, now seems unlikelier than ever, food issues persist, but there is some economic growth, and the North Korean airwaves blast tributes to the young leader at every opportunity.

Signs suggest that Kim Jong Un, increasingly, feels secure in his power and is in it for the haul — ready to, as Andrei Lankov often puts it, die comfortably in his bed of old age. 

When Kim Jong Un took power, many believed his leadership would not last | Photo: KCNA

How did this happen? How did the pampered son of a pampered son come to rule over a nuclear-armed state and, ultimately, meet the U.S. President and become the “Supreme Representative of the Korean People”?

These are not easy questions to answer, as reading “The Great Successor” reveals: North Korea is the most closed society on earth, and any journalist hoping to get to the bottom of what’s really going on there, as this author can attest, is no easy feat.

Fifield, in the “Great Successor,” decides to take the path that many an unofficial biographer has taken. Deprived of access to her subject, she has instead turned to what’s available in open sources: traveling to the ends of the earth to talk to people who have had access to the young leader and used her own reporting — and interviews with those who’ve fled the country since Kim took power — to fill in the gaps.

The result is a thoughtful, if fundamentally limited, picture of the young leader. We follow him from his early life as a friendless young princeling with a penchant for “model planes and toy ships” to an introverted international school student in cosmopolitan Switzerland.

Much of this story will be familiar to North Korea watchers: the anecdotes of Kim’s classmates about his secretive family, love of basketball, and difficulties connecting with his classmates are well-known — though revelations that Swiss authorities were court-ordered not to spy on the young leader and his guardians are not. 

There’s a little of the armchair psychology inevitable in any book about the childhood of a young tyrant, of course. Tales of his bossy basketball court manner and dark moods — and of his schooling in liberal values and democracy — will inevitably, whether they intend to or not, read as foreshadowing despotic behavior later in life.

These stories are a little unnecessary: private schools are full of entitled little monsters who don’t go on to run gulags, and the leadership of the Khmer Rouge were middle-class intellectuals educated in Parisian universities and well-versed in democratic ideals.

Much of the book focuses on Kim Jong Un’s childhood | Photo: KCNA

There’s also little in-depth examination of what North Korean propaganda has said about Kim Jong Un, beyond passing references to the odd anecdote or piece of music.

Devoid of hard substance as it may be, how state media has reported on the country’s young leadership — and how the tone of that coverage has shifted as Kim’s control has deepened — would have been a worthwhile exercise in a book devoted to examining how North Korea has changed under the young leader.

And, as with any book about North Korea, the question of source reliability looms large. A key font of information about the young leader’s private life, Chef Kenji Fujimoto (interviewed several times by this website, too) has long been understood by journalists to be an intriguing, if sometimes sensational, source. The nature of the subject matter, of course, necessitates this, but more caveats about his account of a young Kim Jong Un might have been worthwhile. 

There’s also the matter of who scooped whom: claims that Kim Jong Un’s half-brother Kim Jong Nam was working on behalf of U.S. intelligence before his death have been sold as an exclusive story. But as many have already pointed out these reports are not new: South Korean experts — as well as Japan’s Asahi Sinmun — have made similar claims since Kim’s untimely death.

Other reviews of the book have taken Fifield to task for this and other elements of her approach, arguing that the closed nature of North Korean society means that it’s simply too early for a book of this sort. With Kim Jong Un inaccessible and the regime’s archives closed, the argument goes, what’s the point of a book about the young leader?

“The Great Successor,” of course, is far from the first biography of an enigmatic leader to be written without any input from its subject, and Fifield has put together a rich tapestry of eccentrics and exiles who’ve had access to Kim, from Vice producers who accompanied Dennis Rodman on his first fateful visit to North Korea in March 2013 to Kim Jong Un’s own aunt.

family photo

Some of the best passages focus on the changing lives of everyday North Koreans | Photo by nknews_hq

But where “The Great Successor” shines most is when it accepts the limitations of its subject-matter and instead builds on what was Fifield’s most insightful reporting when she was Tokyo Bureau Chief for the Washington Post: using interviews with recently-escaped defectors to paint a picture of how life has changed under Kim Jong Un.

The biggest story of the DPRK in the Kim III era, at least for the country’s long-term future, will be the country’s changing economy, its growing middle class, and the trials and tribulations of the so-called “Jangmadang generation” of millennials born in the ’80s and ’90s. In the years since taking power, Kim Jong Un has worked hard to keep that generation happy.

Compelling accounts of the increasingly prosperous lives of the North Korean 1% tell stories of new trends in the capital’s bougie “Pyonghatten” neighbors, while others tell the harrowing stories of those that left the country and made new lives for themselves in South Korea. Fifield has dedicated the book to these North Koreans and millions of others, and it’s when the story turns to focus on real lives in North Korea that it succeeds the most.

It’s important to think about what “The Great Successor” is trying to achieve. This isn’t a book for specialists hoping to get a completely new and previously-classified look inside the North Korean state — some of these do exist, though often sporadically published in English. Anyone expecting that will be disappointed, and would do well to better manage their own expectations when it comes to books about Kim Jong Un.

But those reading “The Great Successor”’s marketing copy and cartoonish cover — as well as its satirical title — ought to understand what Fifield is hoping to do: offer an accessible and fresh take on the life and times of Kim Jong Un.

And in seeking to accomplish this, she largely succeeds. North Korea watchers will walk away from “The Great Successor” with a fuller picture of a changing North Korea and its people, as well as a rich tapestry of interesting anecdotes about the young leader’s life. More casual observers, in turn, could not ask for a better introduction to an enigmatic country and its curious leadership.

Edited by James Fretwell

Featured image: Rodong Sinmun

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