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.