Writing and commentary on North Korea are routinely crippled by our poor knowledge of its inner workings. The government publishes few formal documents or White Papers for outsiders, provides little hard data such as calculations of annual economic growth or national budget figures, and routinely exaggerates or lies in its propaganda. So we often rely on logic or parallels to now-defunct Stalinist states to make estimations of its motivations. In her biography of North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, Anna Fifield has tried hard to push beyond these limitations, chasing leads around the world and reaching out directly to dozens if not hundreds of interviewees, including many North Korean defectors. This gives the book a powerful credibility.
Fifield, now The Washington Post’s correspondent in Beijing but who previously covered Japan and the Koreas, has a journalist knack for colour and detail, which brings her narrative alive. Her lengthy treatment of the pampered yet lonely life of North Korean elites is an excellent example. North Korea has been ruled by three generations of the Kim family. The various children, retainers, mistresses and hangers-on in that cloistered world live in unbelievable opulence. Fearing assassination or other harm, and to ensure that regular North Koreans have little sense of their Neronian lifestyle, these elites are not allowed to mingle much with the public. Consequently, they are strikingly lonely in their palaces, which might account for their otherwise curious efforts to attend an Eric Clapton concert or slip into Disneyland Japan.
This is a review from Australian Foreign Affairs 6: Our Sphere of Influence. To read the full issue subscribe or buy the issue.