The Great Successor: The Secret Rise And Rule Of Kim Jong Un
John Murray £20
Aged three, he was such a skilled marksman that he could hit a lightbulb at 100 yards. Aged six, he could ride a wild horse. Aged eight, he could drive a truck at 80mph. And by the age of nine he was such an accomplished powerboat-racer that he had twice beaten the European champion.
These were just a few of the accomplishments listed on Kim Jong Un’s CV when he assumed power after the death of his father in 2009, at the age of 25.
Kim Jong Un with Donald Trump. How to match the two disparate figures – overweight wally and homicidal maniac?
Until that point, the North Korean people had known precious little about their new leader, not even his age. But now they were assured that they were in good hands. Among more than 100 titles freshly awarded to Kim Jong Un, by no less a personage than himself, were: The Best Incarnation of Love, The Decisive and Magnanimous Leader, The Guardian of Justice and The Bright Sun of the Twenty-First Century. However, in neighbouring China, subversives knew him by an altogether briefer name: Kim Fatty the Third.
Like many homicidal dictators – Idi Amin, Adolf Hitler, Colonel Gaddafi – Kim Jong Un strikes the rest of the world as a badly drawn cartoon, a figure too absurdly ridiculous to be taken seriously. Yet he presides over the most oppressive regime in the world, in which political prisoners are routinely tortured, and guards who fail to be merciless are themselves punished. ‘Women who wind up in prison after being repatriated from China have reported being forced to have abortions – often induced through beatings – or having their newborn baby killed in front of them,’ reports Anna Fifield, the Beijing bureau chief for the Washington Post. ‘Some have even reported being forced to kill their babies or be killed themselves.’
Two years ago, the International Bar Association commissioned three human rights judges to look into North Korea’s prison camps. One of them – himself a child of Auschwitz – concluded that ‘they are as terrible, or even worse than those I saw and experienced in my youth in these Nazi camps and in my long professional career in the human rights field’. The commission concluded – like a UN commission before it – that Kim Jong Un should be put on trial for crimes against humanity.
At the heart of Fifield’s fascinating book lies the gap between the balloon-faced buffoon with the daft hairdo and the murderous tyrant who now possesses a bomb 17 times more powerful than the one that destroyed Hiroshima.
Many of Kim Jong Un’s pastimes and pleasures are laughably banal, the usual stuff of overgrown adolescents. He relaxes by watching old Jean-Claude Van Damme movies and listening to Whitney Houston. He binges on cakes and cheese. He is a big fan of basketball, gadgets and sports cars. In a happier world, he would be sending off unanswered applications for a job as a junior researcher on Top Gear.
How to match the two disparate figures – overweight wally and homicidal maniac? Fifield has done her level best. She knows North Korea as well as any Westerner, and visited it ten times before Kim Jong Un came to power. For this book, she tracked down his aunt and uncle, who acted as his guardians when he was at school in Switzerland. She interviewed his father’s sushi chef, who was also Kim Jong Un’s childhood playmate. She has interviewed hundreds of people who have escaped from North Korea. And so on and so forth.
But North Korea remains the most secretive country in the world, and so she has been unable to join all the dots. Some of the most important information about Kim Jong Un is still under lock and key. Even now, no one knows whether or not he has a son, and his own character and motivation remain elusive. Sadly, his aunt – now an exile – has nothing of interest to say about him. ‘He is stubborn,’ she tells Fifield. ‘He wants to do what he wants to do.’ Well, just fancy that!
Was Jong Un always a Wrong Un? His father sent him to a swanky international school in Switzerland, but his old teachers are keeping very tight-lipped about him. ‘The pupil was considered to be well-integrated, diligent and ambitious. His hobby was basketball,’ is all they will say. Perhaps they can’t actually remember which one he was, as he was booked in under an alias, and clearly made little impression, even on his fellow pupils.
One of them remembers an Asian boy in a tracksuit and Nike shoes who was introduced to class 6A as Pak Un, the son of North Korean diplomats. ‘He was ambitious but not aggressive,’ he says. His grades were never very good, and he clocked up an above-average number of absences. He attended classes on human rights, in which he and his fellow pupils were taught all about Gandhi and Mandela. ‘It’s hard to know what Kim Jong Un thought during these lessons,’ concludes Fifield. Or at any other time in his life, she might have added.
The young Kim Jong Un owned a Sony PlayStation, and loved James Bond and Jackie Chan. He wasn’t a party animal, and never drank alcohol. He kept himself to himself. In an attempt to find out more, Fifield pokes around the school, but comes up with nothing even remotely revealing. ‘In the school library there are books about Picasso and Peter the Great in German and also books in English on display.’
He was the youngest of three brothers, but his eldest brother was too louche, and the next in line was, in their father’s words, ‘too girly’, so the leadership passed to Kim Jong Un. The girly brother now passes his days going to Eric Clapton concerts and buying guitars, and the eldest brother is dead, despatched in a matter of minutes with deadly poison at Kuala Lumpur airport, with $120,000 in cash in his backpack, more than likely a payment from the CIA.
Kim Jong Un as a cartoon villain. Like many homicidal dictators – Idi Amin, Adolf Hitler, Colonel Gaddafi – Kim Jong Un strikes the rest of the world as a badly drawn cartoon
The wackiest chapter in the book concerns Kim Jong Un’s bromance with the former Chicago Bulls basketball player Dennis Rodman, author of an autobiography called Bad As I Wanna Be. Kim Jong Un seems to love having a hard-partying basketball star as a buddy, and, for his part Rodman loves visiting Kim Jong Un’s five-square-mile luxury compound in Pyongyang. ‘Everything is just like five-star, six-star, seven-star,’ he reports. ‘It’s just a great day every day. There was so much entertainment, so much fun, just so much relaxation. Everything was just so, so perfect.’
Alas, Rodman’s character-sketch of his host lacks much insight. Kim Jong Un is, he concludes, ‘Just a normal guy’. The pair of them race jet-skis together; Rodman doesn’t seem to mind that Kim Jong Un always wins, as his jet-ski is twice as powerful.
The dictator’s only other Western pal is none other than President Trump, who started off by calling him ‘Little Rocket Man’ but changed his mind after their summit meeting, describing him as ‘Very talented, very smart, very good negotiator’. Which, weirdly enough, was probably true: in Fifield’s view, Kim Jong Un walked away from the summit with greater concessions from America than America managed to extract from him.
Though she does her best to stick to the facts, Fifield occasionally strays into speculation. For instance, after describing the security guards who had to run alongside his limousine at the summit, she firmly states that Kim got the idea for this human shield from Clint Eastwood’s In The Line Of Fire. It’s a funny idea, but how can she possibly know if it’s true? It’s not the sort of thing North Korea would include in its PR handouts.
In fact, they are so protective of their tubby ruler that they always insist he travels with a portable toilet, ‘so that he won’t leave any samples from which health information could be extracted’. More important issues are veiled in what can best be described as a deathly silence. Despite extensive research, Anna Fifield failed to track down anyone who has ever emerged from one of Kim Jong Un’s prison camps, presumably because no such person exists.