It was in late 2013, almost two years into his reign, that Kim Jong-un sent an emphatic message that no one was safe in North Korea. Jang Song-thaek was a high-ranking official in the regime. He was charismatic, well-travelled, and enjoyed karaoke (he was also rumoured to have held “auditions” for the women who became part of Kim Jong-il’s “Pleasure Squad”). He had ideas about opening up the North Korean economy and mimicking China’s experiment with special economic zones and foreign investment. Although he had served time in a re-education camp for throwing bacchanals for bureaucrats, Jang was savvy and politically ambitious. By 2010 he had become vice chairman of the National Defence Commission, making him one of the most powerful figures after Kim Jong-il. He was also regarded as someone who could act as regent during the transition from the Dear Leader to his Great Successor. After all, Jang was Kim Jong-un’s uncle.
But for many in the Workers’ Party of Korea, Jang had amassed too much power, and his theories of economic development were intolerable to the conservative factions of the party. They warned Kim Jong-un that Jang’s ideas not only threatened the party’s survival, but that Jang himself was swaggering around the world stage as if he was head of state. Jang was abruptly defenestrated, and accused of leading a “dissolute and depraved life”. Images of guards dragging him out of a politburo meeting were broadcast on Korean Central Television, and Rodong Sinmun – North Korea’s Pravda – dedicated its front page to his crimes. Declared a “traitor for all ages”, Jang was executed by machine gun. His wife, Kim Kyong-hui, has never been seen in public since.
The downfall of Jang Song-thaek was an exhibition of cold-bloodedness, and signalled to state apparatchiks the life-and-death importance of loyalty under Kim 3.0. For the outside world, however, this latest act of familicide provided yet another chance to speculate about the absurd goings-on inside the Hermit Kingdom. The goriest and most fantastical rumour, which first appeared on a satirical Chinese-language website, was that Kim had watched a pack of wild Manchurian hunting dogs tear Jang apart. The story was republished in Hong Kong and Singapore before numerous Western publications ran with it, including NBC News, the Daily Mail, and the London Evening Standard.
Anna Fifield, who is the Beijing bureau chief for The Washington Post, recounts the fake news of Jang’s execution in her superb book on Kim Jong-un. In doing so, she highlights two features of her work that make it essential reading. The first is her qualities as a storyteller. From his childhood and teenage years in Pyongyang and then Switzerland, to his 2019 summit with Trump in Hanoi, Fifield skilfully charts Kim’s rise and consolidation of power over North Korea.
Upon his accession in 2011, some questioned whether Kim could succeed as a ruler – his older brother Kim Jong-nam, an exile in Macau, said he had “doubts about whether a person with only two years of grooming as a leader can govern”. A major theme of Fifield’s book is how Kim confounded such expectations, transforming official hereditary power into true supremacy. In that sense, the book is a study in applied Machiavellianism. Kim has terrified the populace into submission, purged elites, stabilised the economy, allowed state-run markets (jangmadang) to blossom, and achieved nuclear capability: “A gun in one hand and a hammer and sickle in the other!” was the slogan of his grandfather, Kim Il-sung. Perhaps most impressively, he has convinced Trump and Xi Jinping to treat him like any other statesman.
The second, overriding, virtue of Fifield’s work is in its making. How do you report on such a secretive country? Besides being ushered around on state-sanctioned tours (Fifield has visited North Korea ten times), how do you avoid slipping into cliché and boilerplate descriptions of neo-Stalinist terror? How do you write the biography of a leader whose birthday is still unknown? (It’s thought that the official date is 1982, but South Korean intelligence believes it’s 1983. Kim’s aunt, Ko Yong-suk, told Fifield it’s 1984.) How does a writer say something even vaguely human about someone who kills his family members? (Kim Jong-nam was assassinated with a VX nerve agent in Kuala Lumpur airport in 2017.) What should you make of a person who, when travelling abroad, has a dedicated team for scrubbing hotel rooms, cleaning dishes, and bringing portable toilets so that their boss “won’t leave any samples from which health information could be extracted”?
That Fifield has written such a sensitive (although not sympathetic), credible, and up-to-date account of Kim is testament to her skills as a reporter. The result is a model of investigative diligence and rigour, as she criss-crosses Asia, Europe, and the United States, interviewing old family members of Kim, escapees from North Korea, scholars, and even Vice crew members who accompanied the basketball player Denis Rodman on his trip to North Korea in 2013. The Great Successor, then, is a sharp reminder about the importance of considered, and well-funded, journalism, where the aim is to uncover facts, not generate clicks and outlandish speculation.
Fifield thinks that Kim’s overarching goal is clear: to stay in power. But doing so will require ensuring tangible economic development for the entire country, and not just super-enrichment for the elites. Kim won’t relinquish his nukes – he’s seen what that did to Colonel Gaddafi – but Fifield is right to say that he needs to maintain the momentum that the peace talks are giving him before his subjects become jaded with his rule and thoughts of democracy take over.
The problem Kim faces is term limits – not his, but Trump’s, his newfound negotiating partner, and the man he once called a “mentally deranged US dotard”. Whoever replaces Trump, either in 2o20 or in 2024, is unlikely to be as fraternal, and so Kim’s window of opportunity to achieve what the noted North Korea expert Andrei Lankov describes as “reform without openness” is closing. For now, though, even Kim thinks it’s “too early to tell” what will happen in the months and years ahead. But as he also told reporters in Hanoi, “I wouldn’t say I’m pessimistic.”
The Great Successor: The Secret Rise and Rule of Kim Jong-un
John Murray, 336pp, £20