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Book Review: "The Great Successor: The Secret Rise and Rule of Kim Jung Un" by Anna Fifield

By Fraser Cameron

6 August 2019

Anna Fifield, The Great Successor: The Secret Rise and Rule of Kim Jung Un. Published by John Murray, UK, 2019, ISBN 9781529387254

Book Review 

There is no country in the world as secretive as North Korea and no leadership less open to public scrutiny. When I visited the reclusive nation five years ago, I was astonished to see what George Orwell had predicted in his seminal book, 1984, before my very eyes. No other country has perfected the cult of leadership, which essentially means the Kim family dynasty, like North Korea. Donald Trump could only dream of ecstatic crowds bellowing his name in unison and his every word of wisdom being broadcast to every corner of this impoverished land of 25 million citizens.

Given the restrictions on visits and reporting, it is astonishing that Anna Fifield, an award winning journalist for several top newspapers, has pulled together an extraordinary story about Kim Jung Un’s rise to the top of the greasy pole. It is a story to rival The Game of Thrones with tales of infighting, treachery and murder. Drawing on numerous sources, from defectors and those who worked directly with the youthful president to those who knew the young pretender at his private Swiss school, Fifield paints a colourful and frightening picture of the only world leader under 35 with his finger, literally, on the nuclear button. 

It was not inevitable that Kim Jung Un would succeed to the throne. After all he was not the eldest son of Kim Jong Il who inherited power from his father Kim Il Sung. Kim Jong Nam and Kim Jong Chol were both his elders but his father decided that his youngest son was to take over power when he died.

The three brothers and a younger sister had a very restricted childhood living in exclusive luxurious compounds in Pyongyang and Wonsan in the summer. They had every conceivable toy but no playmates and had to play games with a Japanese chef who had been brought in to cook sushi.  

In 1996 he was shipped off to Switzerland for five years where he was an average student spending most of his time watching basketball, his one true passion being the Chicago Bulls. When he returned, his father prepared him for leadership by sending him to an elite military academy to ensure that he had contacts with the army top brass and gave him a powerful position in the Korean Workers Party.

When Kim Jong Il died in December 2011, the 27 year old son moved swiftly to take charge of the funeral proceedings and thus emerge as the natural successor. 

He opted for a double strategy of increasing terror at any sign of dissent and allowing some small market openings in the economy. He knew that the impoverished regime would find it difficult to survive if there was no increase in living standards. This proved successful and the leadership turned a blind eye to those that managed to get rich through trading in minerals – as long as they got their cut. There is now a privileged capitalist class in Pyongyang which is beginning to look more like a normal Asian capital – at least on the surface with gleaming new hotels and housing blocks.

The young leader also proved totally ruthless ordering the murder of his uncle, a number of generals and most spectacularly the assassination of his half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, at Kuala Lumpur airport.

But his burning ambition was to produce a nuclear weapon which he believed was the only way to protect North Korea from attack by the US. Having seen what had happened to Saddam Hussein and Mohammed Gaddafi he was not taking any chances. This led to the stand-off with Washington with each side trading insults, none more so than Trump’s description of ‘little Rocket Man’ to which Kim responded by calling Trump ‘the dotard in the White House’. Incredibly the two leaders were to meet in Singapore and later Hanoi as Trump tried to persuade Kim to make a deal – get rid of your nukes and we will drop sanctions. This was never a deal that would fly in North Korea, paranoid about its very existence as a state. Kim is now Trump’s friend, along with Xi Jinping, and sends him love letters. Most experts agree that the youthful leader has outsmarted Trump and will retain his nukes for the foreseeable future.

Fifield’s book provides a fascinating insight into the US-North Korea relationship and is essential reading for anyone wishing to understand Kim Jung Un’s personality, rise to power and his influence on political and economic developments in North Korea. If ever there was a must read – this is it.

Fraser Cameron is Director of the EU-Asia Centre