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.
Early on, Fifield covers the emergence of the Kim dynasty and the various competitors to Kim Jong-un. The most famous of these is Kim Jong-nam, whom Kim Jong-un had murdered with VX toxin in Kuala Lumpur International Airport in 2017. Fifield’s coverage of the current dictator’s early years is arguably her most important contribution. While the politics of Kim’s reign likely interests readers more, it is also widely covered elsewhere. Conversely, his early life is poorly known, and this is certainly the thickest, best-researched treatment of it I have seen. Fifield shows her investigative chops by jetting off to Switzerland, where Kim went to school, and poking around among those who knew him. She learned that Kim was far more interested in basketball than study, struggled to connect with other students and skipped class routinely for family reasons. This only partial immersion in the Westernised environment of Switzerland may explain why his schooling there did not much nurture liberalising or reformist impulses.
The heart of the book is the consolidation of power by this newest Kim monarch. Kim was just twenty-seven when he became the Supreme Leader of the North. Many thought he would become a figurehead of the army or his deceased father’s retainers. There was much scepticism that such a young, untested man – Kim had never served in either the party or the army, North Korea’s two core institutions – would triumph in North Korea’s Confucian-gerontocratic elite system. Yet he did.
Fifield makes clear that Kim is now fully in charge. She charts how he sidelined competitors, brought the army under control, and used money and luxury to co-opt the elites. She references Machiavelli’s The Prince in describing this consolidation, and that seems apt. Particularly gripping is her rise-and-fall narrative of Kim’s uncle, Jang Song-thaek. After becoming a central figure behind the throne of Kim’s father, he was harshly purged in the son’s new order. It is an archetypal story of the dangerous politics of closed autocratic systems, and Fifield tells it with brio.
The most policy-relevant portion of the book is its final chapters, which focus on the regime’s nuclear and missile development, and subsequent efforts to strike a deal with South Korea and the United States. Fifield is guardedly optimistic. She believes – correctly, to my mind – that Kim is genuinely looking for a deal and that he might trade some of his nukes and missiles for international acceptance, but certainly not all of them. She notes, and again I agree, that Kim came to power determined to complete the nuclear and missile programs his father and grandfather had haltingly pursued. Unlike them, Kim launched a determined, years-long series of tests, culminating in 2017 with the detonation of a fusion warhead – whose yield is an order of magnitude greater than the atomic weapons the United States used in World War II – and the launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile that could strike the US eastern seaboard.
With these successes, North Korea achieved a decades-old goal. It could now threaten the United States with massive nuclear retaliation. Mutually assured destruction with America all but guaranteed that the United States would never attack North Korea, or otherwise pursue regime change, due to the threat that Pyongyang would, in turn, launch a nuclear weapon at the US homeland. Regime security for the Kim family had at last been achieved.
Nuclear deterrence in hand, Kim could then turn to relieving the sanctions and containment his country faced. Since 2018, Kim has downplayed his nuclear weapons and missiles and talked up diplomacy and outreach. Most importantly, he met US President Donald Trump twice in an effort to broker a deal relieving the North’s isolation. Trump seems to believe that his fulsome personality and negotiating skills brought Kim to the bargaining table. Fifield avoids directly refuting this interpretation, but she does repeatedly note how staged and choreographed Kim’s coming out feels. At one point, she aptly terms it a “contrived metamorphosis”. The correlate of that, then, is that North Korea’s turn towards diplomacy had nothing to do with Trump’s “friendship” or bargaining skills but was in fact a long-planned manoeuvre after completing the nuclear deterrent. That is almost certainly accurate.
Given the interest in North Korea’s Supreme Leader in recent years, and the curious dearth of biographical treatments, Fifield’s book will be read widely. It covers a lot of territory, and some of it – on Kim’s youthful years – breaks new ground. Fifield makes sure to sprinkle throughout her story the grandiloquent language the North Korean media uses to describe Kim. This adds a bit of levity to an otherwise grim account. Kim has such wonderful titles as “Invincible and Triumphant General”, “Sun of Socialism” and “Ever-Victorious, Iron-Willed Commander”.
If there is any downside to the book, it is that the chronological framing leads to topical disjunctures as we leap from nuclear weapons to Dennis Rodman (whom Kim wanted to meet personally several years ago) to Kim family decadence, and so on. But this is limited by the author’s wise decision to avoid the ridiculous gossip that surrounds the Kim family. For example, the notion that the Kims are mad is quickly and appropriately dismissed. Rodman gets the necessary coverage but no more.
Fifield’s tone is serious and the coverage rich. Recommended.
Robert E. Kelly