Anna Fifield
The Great Successor: The Secret Rise and Rule of Kim Jong Un,
John Murray, UK, 2019

ISBN-13: 978-1529387254

The Great Successor long

 

 

"Meticulously researched, packed with hitherto unknown detail and drawing on many interviews Fifield has conducted with 'dozens of courageous escapees from North Korea', this is a must-read for anyone seriously interested in gaining some insight into what motivates the North Korean leader."

These days rarely out of international headlines - witness last weekend's historic meeting in the DMZ with US President Donald Trump, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un nonetheless still remains something of a mystery to the outside world, alternately viewed as a behind-the-times oddball with a strange haircut or a ruthless dictator capable of doing anything to retain power.

Author Anna Fifield, Beijing bureau chief with The Washington Post, takes an in-depth look behind the caricatures to find the real Kim Jong-un in a comprehensive account which traces his life from his childhood living in luxurious isolation to his schooling in Switzerland, his assumption of power, and his engagements with the worldwide community since.

The third generation of his family to rule North Korea, Kim Jong-un owes his position to his grandfather, Kim Il-sung, who stepped into the power vacuum left on the northern half of the Korean Peninsula after its liberation from the Japanese in World War II. Following a US-Soviet pact to divide the peninsula along the 38th parallel, the USSR had appointed Cho Man Sik as their puppet leader but when he failed to impress, Kim Il-sung saw his chance and when the Democratic People's Republic of Korea was founded on 9th September, 1948, he was installed as the new nation's leader.

Fifield writes that Kim Il-sung had no sooner been appointed than he "began a personality cult so pervasive it would soon make Stalin look like an amateur". Hence why, we learn, that North Koreans to this day don't celebrate their own birthdays but instead that of their leader around upon whom the whole nation is focused.

A bastketball fanatic who was presented with his first car at the age of seven and a Colt .45 pistol which he wore on his hip at the age of just 11, Kim Jong-un was officially named as his father's successor in 2009 and took power following the death of his father Kim Jong-il in late 2011.

Fifield's book shows the key role both propaganda and fear have played in keeping Kim in power. She writes of how at weekly education sessions, North Koreans had fantastical versions of Kim's life story drilled into them - stories about how the "Brilliant Comrade" had fired a gun when he was aged three and hit a light bulb 100 yards away, how, at the age of eight, he could drive a truck at 80mph, and how he knew everything there was to know about the military.

"It was hard to swallow, even in North Korea," Fifield writes but goes on to quote a Mr Kang, a North Korean who once sold drugs across the border into China and who now lives in South Korea, saying that while it was hard to believe, "if you questioned it, you'd be killed."

But Fifield also writes of how Kim has also used a market system to maintain his hold on power by allowing some people to improve their living conditions in what she describes as the "biggest agent for change that North Korea has ever experienced". Not only has it seen the establishment of a middle class in the country, it has meant that while malutrition remains a widespread problem, "people are not dying from hunger any more."

The account swings at times between the ludicrous - such as Kim's meetings with American basketballer Dennis Rodman - and the brutal - such as the time Kim had one of his generals, Hyong Yong Chol, blown apart with anti-aircraft guns (his crimes were said to include falling asleep while Kim Jong-un was speaking).

It's a fascinating, yet chilling book, and its importance is only made more so by the recent on-again, off-again relationship between Kim and Trump, a man whose praise for Kim has including describing him as a "real leader".

Meticulously researched, packed with hitherto unknown detail and drawing on many interviews Fifield has conducted with "dozens of courageous escapees from North Korea", this is a must-read for anyone seriously interested in gaining some insight into what motivates the North Korean leader.