A Rare Biography of Ruthless, Enigmatic North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un

Book review: The Great Successor, by Anna Fifield (Amazon / Book Depository)

I didn’t imagine a book about Kim Jong Un would be an unputdownable page-turner, but here we are. I’m not sure anything I write about The Great Successor is going to do it justice as it’s tough to encapsulate, but I’ll try.

Kim Jong Un is the younger son of Kim Jong Il, the second ruler of the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea, as it’s known since its division after the Korean War (I’m messily consolidating lots of history here, but it’s complex and Anna Fifield is going to explain it to you better anyway.) The younger Kim wasn’t the obvious choice to lead after his father’s 2011 death. The family drama is intense, from the snubbing and eventual public assassination of older brother Kim Jong Nam in 2017, to Kim Jong Il’s wives, to the more we’re learning about fiercely loyal “princess” sister, Kim Yo Jong, who, when I was reading this may or may not have fallen from favor.

“An old day was dawning,” Fifield writes, clarifying why Kim dresses in the Mao suit that his grandfather Kim Il Sung wore, has that hideous ‘do, and employs imagery, style and even lighting reminiscent of Sung’s postwar rule. This hearkening back to a perceived time of greater prosperity was particularly important to Kim because of his youth — only 32 when he took power — and age being extremely significant in Korean culture. It was also a subtle reminder of his connection to the man who’d founded North Korea in its current state, and thus Kim’s inherent right to rule.

I wanted to figure out how this young man and the regime he inherited had defied the odds. I wanted to find out everything there was to know about Kim Jong Un. So I set out to talk to everyone who’d ever met him, searching for clues about this most enigmatic of leaders. It was tough; so few people had met him, and even among that select group, the number of people who’ve spent any meaningful time with him was tiny.

Considering that, it’s somewhat incredible that Fifield managed a biography of this caliber. There are blank spaces, unknown quantities — but overall it’s incredibly informative. It’s also impressively up to the minute, considering North Korea’s frequent headline-grabbing. As I don’t anticipate a flood of additional insider information about the Kims anytime soon, I don’t think it’ll soon become dated aside from the ongoing progression of news stories (the latest: piranha-filled fish tank execution).

Over hundreds of hours of interviews across eight countries, I managed to piece together a jigsaw puzzle called Kim Jong Un. What I learned did not bode well for the twenty-five million people still trapped inside North Korea.

No surprise there. Fifield gathers intel from Kenji Fujimoto, who she calls a “Kim-Jong-Un-ologist” — a Japanese sushi chef for the Kims and unlikely friend to KJU in his lonely childhood. Other sources include members of Dennis Rodman’s entourage; Kim’s aunt and uncle, who posed as his parents when he attended boarding school in Switzerland (they’ve since defected to the US); and information and impressions from Fifield’s trips.

One affecting scene was in a new pizza parlor in Pyongyang, as she detailed some of the changes in the capital, including its culinary landscape. She playfully mentions to an employee that Kim must have acquired a taste for pizza while living in Europe. He’s crestfallen, wondering how an outsider knows more about their leader than citizens do. She breaks down Kim’s carefully cultivated image and analyzes everything from what he hides to what he displays, like his wife, “the North Korean Kate Middleton, rejuvenating the monarchy and humanizing her husband.”

Fifield’s experience as Beijing bureau chief for the Washington Post comes in handy, as she’s so well versed in the history, politics, economics, and culture of the region. She’s able to interpret the facts and draw reasonable, educated assumptions about what intelligence may indicate, from political and economic goings-on in the hermetic country to the state of Kim’s health (gout, probably diabetes, something they’re afraid will be discovered in his poo?) You’ll learn things you never knew you never knew.

The North Koreans guard details of the leader’s health closely. For all his meetings outside North Korea – including in Singapore – they travel with a special portable toilet for him to use so that he won’t leave any samples from which health information could be extracted.

She also explains cultural concepts that influence the Kims’ hold over the population, including the family’s Paektu bloodline: “the North Korean equivalent of tracing your ancestors to the Mayflower but in totalitarian overdrive.”

One of my favorite aspects is her insight into recent events, including Otto Warmbier’s captivity and death. The details of this have been strange and stranger, but Fifield has pieced together likely answers and comes to a different conclusion than I’ve read elsewhere, while simultaneously heightening the mystery. Ominously, she shares her impressions of the heavy-drinking party tour group he’d been with, and it’s surprising something like this didn’t happen sooner.

Fifield’s writing and analysis are particularly excellent when she sums up the surreal state of US-Korean relations today, like that Dennis Rodman held unique relevance in channeling information about Kim to the outside world and bridging relations: the former Celebrity Apprentice contestant became “the only person in the whole world who knew both Trump and Kim.” Good grief.

She also provides insight into the strangeness of belief systems. The politburo and government structure are notoriously harsh, but apparently culture still accommodates the woo-woo. Like regarding Kim’s attitude towards denuclearization, and whether his current window of opportunity with frenemy Trump and South Korean president Moon Jae-in as middleman would last: “One of Kim’s advisers even consulted a traditional Korean fortune-teller to ask whether he [Trump] would be reelected. (The answer was yes.)”

And surprisingly, there are opportunities for levity despite the gravity of it all. Like that Kim was inspired to use jogging bodyguards by the movie In the Line of Fire, where Secret Service agents ran alongside JFK’s car. Except it’s about assassination, so should he really be sourcing ideas there? Kim remains a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, capped with a flattop, but Fifield’s well curated insight is invaluable in understanding something about it all.

Intelligent, impressionistic and immensely readable biography of the enigmatic leader and his significance for the hermit kingdom. 4.75/5

The Great Successor:
The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un,
Sun of the 21st Century

by Anna Fifield
published June 11, 2019 by PublicAffairs

I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.

Amazon / Book Depository

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21 thoughts on “A Rare Biography of Ruthless, Enigmatic North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un

  1. Fascinating review! Thanks for reading all the heavy stuff and telling us about it so we don’t make to. 😂 Funny story, if you’re around my age and live in Orange County, chances are you’ve seen Dennis Rodman “around town”. I have several friends who “partied” with him 20 years ago. I saw him at a restaurant maybe 8 years ago and man, he was a sad sack, hard to understand and kept ordering oysters!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. HA you’re welcome! It sounds crazy but this one wasn’t even all that heavy, the tone is informative but surprisingly light. Like I said, the most unexpected page-turner!

      I don’t know why that’s so funny about him ordering oysters but it is! He just seems an all-around mess. The trips to North Korea were completely alcohol-saturated according to the book, and one was apparently sponsored by a potcoin cryptocurrency…he just seems like a very weird guy.

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  2. Just this year I read an excellent work of investigative journalism about North Korea that taught me so much. It’s told through the voices North Koreans who have defected to South Korea, some of whom want to go back to the north and try to fix the country from the inside. The author goes in depth on his people are treated in North Korea. It also describes how Korea was colonized by the Japanese and why North Korea has bad relationships with certain countries. Here is my review, if you are interested: https://grabthelapels.com/2019/02/15/nothing-to-envy/

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    1. I absolutely love that book! I read it a couple of years ago but so much of it has stayed with me. This one is quite different in scope, it doesn’t focus very much on individuals or daily life beyond explaining certain points the author makes and depicting the economics, but definitely makes a good complement to Nothing to Envy.

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      1. I’m so glad you’ve read it! I think the 5-6 people Demnick followed around gave so much insight into North Korea, and then when the author went there herself, everything was staged. I mean, it sounds like a movie — it’s so surreal!

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  3. All I can think about is that film Team America World Police (by the Southpark guys) which has the puppet Kim singing and using a black Panther (a black pussy cat) to kill people.

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    1. Wasn’t there someone thrown into an aquarium in that movie, too?? I have some vague recollection and I remember the black cat 😂

      While reading it I kept thinking of this running bit they had on 30 Rock from a story line about a reporter captured in North Korea, and every time Kim Jong Il came up they played this music. In the book whenever a serious, weighty statement was made I heard it in my head automatically 🤣 It plays near the end of this clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5K-SmlP4U5w

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      1. Oh that is hilarious! Must show my teens who find Kim very amusing. They were the ones who introduced me to the Team America film, I caught them showing it to my mother (age 88) too and I had to step in and turn it off when it got to the very rude puppety sex scenes. Grandma is very broad minded but still…We were saying yesterday that in a world where the leaders are Trump, Putin, possibly Boris Johnson and Kim, the sanest will be Kim. Scary.

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      2. HA I can imagine that might’ve been a bit much for her! It’s funny you mention about his sanity because I was surprised to learn in the book that he’s quite psychologically stable, according to the author. He may seem nuts and outlandish but it’s actually all very calculated and planned. I also thought if he was clearly mentally unhinged there’d be more of a chance of people turning on him, but seems like it won’t be the case.

        There are a bunch of clips from that show of Kim on YouTube, Margaret Cho plays him and it’s just so funny!!

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  4. This book CANNOT be more entertaining than your review😍 I read portions aloud to hubby and we both enjoyed it immensely. Thank you so much for featuring this book as we both were looking for a book that would give us more insight about this…not sure what to call him.

    Excellent and I’m hoping my library has this book💜

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dictator, tyrant, despot…you can call him it all! I’m so glad it was entertaining for you guys, thank you 🙂 I promise the book really is entertaining too, I was so pleasantly surprised. I couldn’t believe how well written and just well done overall it was, especially considering how little confirmed information exists about him. She managed to piece together a telling portrait nonetheless, and her analysis is fantastic. I’m thinking of what she would say every time North Korea is in the headlines now. Can’t recommend it enough, hope your library orders it!!

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    1. I was surprised by it too, I couldn’t believe it was possible to compile any kind of biography about him, let alone one so well done (and fairly comprehensive) as this. It’s just stellar. Glad I could convince you! 🙂

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  5. Wonderful review – I’m intrigued! I was surprised to read that there are only 25 million people in North Korea… somehow I assumed it would be more populous. It’s an unimaginable place to me. I really do need to do some more reading about it.

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    1. Thank you so much! That is pretty small, isn’t it? I wonder if it has to do with things like their (mal)nutrition, healthcare, etc. leading to low birth rates and higher, earlier death rates. North Korea was a big blank spot to me until I started reading a few books about it within the last couple of years, and seriously, what an unreal but eye-opening topic it is. This is among the best I’ve read, along with Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy.

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  6. I was surprised to hear you say this was unputdownable, but now I’m in! It sounds like the author has done a great job, especially given what a difficult, mysterious subject she chose to write about. Timely too!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was surprised too! The author impressed me, she distills all this research and intel so well and tells it in an unbelievably fascinating way. And definitely timely— something from it comes to mind with every North Korea news story I see now.

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