Few figures on the world stage are more intriguing — or more terrifying — than North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.
As supreme leader, his whims dictate the lives of his country’s 25 million citizens. He controls an arsenal of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles that threaten the lives of millions more around the world.
He executed his uncle for “treachery.” He had his half-brother assassinated with a lethal nerve agent in the middle of a major international airport. He counts Dennis Rodman as one of his closest friends. The president of the United States is “in love” with him.
And he’s only 35 years old.
Since coming to power after the death of his father in 2011, Kim has slowly begun bringing his country out of its decades-long isolation. He’s allowed some free market economic enterprises to develop in the country and held dramatic face-to-face meetings with the leaders of China, South Korea, and the US.
He even appeared at a press conference and took actual questions from foreign journalists on live TV — something that would have been completely unheard of even a few years ago.
Yet the man himself remains an enigma.
In a new book titled The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, the Washington Post’s Beijing bureau chief Anna Fifield provides an intimate, inside look at the man who has captivated and menaced the world — his pampered childhood, his teen years studying abroad in Switzerland, his close relationship with his mother, and his violent rise to power.
Fifield is a prize-winning reporter who arguably has covered North Korea better than most journalists in recent memory. And her book is among the most authoritative and comprehensive accounts of Kim — both as a man and as a dictator — in years. It’s mainly why I called her up to get a better sense of the man behind the missiles.
A lightly edited transcript of my conversation with Fifield is below.
So who is Kim Jong Un? What makes the man tick?
His number one goal, the thing he wakes up thinking about every day, is how to stay in power. All he cares about is holding on to his job and keeping his family in charge of North Korea. Every decision he makes and everything he does revolves around that top priority.
So, contrary to the stereotype of a crazy, nuclear-armed toddler, he is very strategic and calculating in the way he approached his inheritance. He has set out from the start with a master plan to improve North Korea’s nuclear program and the economy.
To be clear, he’s focusing on the economy not because he cares about the North Korean people — he’s shown time and time again that he doesn’t care about them. Rather, he needs a growing economy to remain in control of his country for decades to come.
Take me back to the beginning, to his childhood. In the book, you write that for Kim and his siblings, “life was pure luxury.” What you describe — personal chefs, tailor-made clothes, gardens filled with monkeys and bears in cages, every toy imaginable, from pinball machines to video games to four-wheel vehicles — makes him sound like Richie Rich.
Yeah, absolutely. He was a spoiled brat. He was brought up to believe that he was a demigod from the age of 3 or 4, probably as long as he can remember. He was given a specially modified car so he could drive it himself at the age of 7.
Then there was the time the family’s personal sushi chef, who had basically been hired to be Kim’s friend, went fishing for sea bass with Kim and his brother. Every time the chef caught a fish, Kim would promptly demand to hold the fishing rod so he could claim he caught the fish himself. He got whatever he wanted, but he also lived this extremely abnormal life inside North Korea where he was completely cut off from his country and from his peers.
And keep in mind that there was famine raging in North Korea from the time he was about 10 years old — and he most likely didn’t even know about it, since he would’ve had no access to outside information.
Kim spent several years living and going to school in Switzerland in the 1990s, while he was in his early teens, under a false identity. How did that experience affect him? And why didn’t his time in the West seem to rub off on him?
There was this idea that Kim would be a different kind of leader because he’d been exposed to the West. He would have an idea of what it was like to live in a free world and a liberal democracy, so he couldn’t help but be a reformer.
But I think the opposite is the truth. What his time in Switzerland must have taught him is that if it wasn’t for the family myth and family dynasty, he’d be a nobody. He would be another ordinary, chubby immigrant kid going to school and struggling with his math homework. He would not, in other words, be the demigod he had been raised to be.
So his time in Switzerland probably only served to convince him even more that he should perpetuate the system and rise to the top.
Were there any moments from his time in Switzerland that crystallized that view of him for you?
When he would play on the nearby basketball court every day after school, other people there thought he was from Thailand because the Thai Embassy was close by. No one knew how special he really was.
And his aunt and uncle — who were his guardians and posed as his parents while he was in Switzerland — used to go along with little picnic-like chairs and sit there to cheer him on. It struck people there as very odd that he had these overly obsessive, overly encouraging guardians. It was very strange, this environment that he grew up in. He grew up being the center of attention and was used to getting his own way all the time.
I’m kind of reluctant to draw too many conclusions from his childhood, though. We all will hopefully have matured from when we were 12 years old, and all of us had bad days at that age.
You write in the book that he didn’t speak Swiss German well, and he couldn’t handle even sitting in class, that he would kick and spit on his fellow students. It seems like he didn’t take failure or imperfection well at all.
He certainly was frustrated at not being able to communicate with his classmates or not being able to just operate. I think that’s why he was so withdrawn at school.
But he did make four friends in Switzerland, and he seemed able to open up to them. He actually told one of them that his father was Kim Jong Il. Of course, the guy didn’t believe him. Still, it shows he was able to warm up to people when he wanted to.
What stands out most about his childhood to me, though, is that he wasn’t a psychopath. He was just a frustrated immigrant kid. Nobody talked about him torturing kittens on the playground or anything like that, and there’s no evidence that he’s crazy.
One thing that does seem to stem from his childhood for sure is this belief that he’s some kind of military genius. You write that as a child, he would wear military garb and bark orders at people, even adults, and that that attitude persisted when he went back to North Korea.
Right. There really was no other option for him, though. His father was running a military-first policy, and the military is extremely important in North Korea. The idea that he needed to prove his military chops must have been clear very early on.
Also, you need to understand that part of the way the regime has stayed in power for so long is by creating this constant sense of fear and threat of the hostile United States coming to kill them. So he needs to portray himself as a military genius who is capable of defending the country.
One of the really interesting things that I stumbled upon during the course of researching this book is that so much of his life seems to have been part of his mother’s design. His mother, Ko Yong Hui, was this very calculating character who wanted both of her sons to go to Kim Il Sung Military Academy, which is basically the West Point of North Korea, to ensure they had the necessary credentials to lead someday and to claim the right of succession in North Korea.
That’s really interesting. We know so much about his father, since he ran the country for nearly two decades, but we almost never hear anything about his mother. What else do we know about her and how important she was in Kim’s life?
Well, his interest in the military and in basketball came from her, so she was clearly very important. But his mother was a very ambitious woman herself. Her influence was seen everywhere from the cartoons of her that suddenly started appearing on TV to the way her sons were promoted and moved up the ranks. It was probably much more the mother that decided who was the successor, rather than the boy himself.
Did he idolize her?
Well, we do have photos of the two of them together, while there are very few photos of him with his father and no photos of him with his grandfather, whom he never met. So he does seem to have been very close to his mother.
She was very involved in his upbringing, even when he was in Switzerland, and even though she had her public duties as Kim Jong Il’s consort to attend to. According to Kim’s aunt, his mother’s sister, they were very close. She was a very hands-on mother despite these constraints.
The figure of the mother in North Korean propaganda is very important. They call the country the motherland, and sometimes you will hear the leaders — even Kim Il Sung, the country’s founder and Kim Jong Un’s grandfather — referred to as the “Great Motherly Leader” in Korean.
From very early on, Kim Jong Un’s mother was idolized in the country. There was propaganda and movies about her, and footage released showing her with Kim Il Sung.
So it was very important for Kim Jong Un’s eventual rise to power to have this mother figure involved in his life from the start and to show her as a loyal servant of the regime.
So how does Kim go from being a frustrated immigrant kid and cherished son to killing off family members like his uncle and half-brother?
He didn’t have much affection for the people he had killed off. His uncle, Jang Song Thaek, had always been aligned with his half-brother’s line of the family, and Jang remained close to the half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, even after the latter went into self-imposed exile.
The uncle played a very important role during the transition period by providing stability and advice while Kim was settling in — but it didn’t take much for Kim Jong Un to get rid of him.
The few anecdotes I heard were about how Jang continued to treat Kim like a child even after he took power, like when Jang sent away the Coca-Cola Kim ordered when he hosted Dennis Rodman for dinner after a basketball game. Jang also spoke at length at the dinner, and people who were there said Kim seemed to roll his eyes as if to say, “Oh, that old windbag again,” when his uncle was speaking.
But there’s obviously still a big step to go from thinking, “Ugh, that guy,” to having him taken out and shot. From Kim’s perspective, though, it was no loss to him to get rid of Jang because in doing so, he got rid of a rival. It also sent out this very powerful deterrent message to anybody else in the regime who might be thinking about growing their own power base: I have no compunction of getting rid of anybody, even my own relative.
And when it comes to the assassination of his half-brother, there’s no evidence that Kim Jong Nam and Kim Jong Un ever met each other. So for Kim the leader, Kim the sibling was just another person, just another rival that could be disposed of.
Many analysts have pointed out that Kim has gone out of his way to look like his grandfather, from his haircut to the style of suit he wears and even down to his big belly. But is he really trying to emulate his grandfather when it comes to his behavior and how he’s running the country? Or is he just trying to look like him while charting his own path forward?
He’s very much emulating his grandfather. To this day, even some defectors I spoke to in South Korea and China still have a lot of admiration for Kim Il Sung because they associate him with the good times in North Korea — when it had allies in the world and when the North Korean economy was better than the South Korean economy (up until about 1975). And, of course, North Koreans still have a lot of affection for him.
Kim Jong Un has definitely tried to piggyback on that through his physical appearance. But they also seem to be alike personality-wise, or at least much closer than Kim Jong Un’s personality is to his father’s.
Both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Un seem to be much more gregarious and outgoing characters. They both enjoy being out and talking to people. Kim Jong Il, meanwhile, was just an oddball: He was very introspective and didn’t enjoy socializing or interacting with outsiders. He only spoke in public once during 17 years in power, and he uttered one single sentence.
Whereas Kim Jong Un, he’s out there all the time talking to people and giving speeches and stuff like that. So I think he has much more of the charisma that his grandfather had.
One of the most fascinating things you talk about in your book is Kim’s relationship with his wife, Ri Sol Ju. I think most Americans probably don’t even realize Kim got married in 2009 — or that he has kids, for that matter. Can you tell me more about his wife and the role she plays in his life?
She seems to be a very moderating influence on him. In North Korea, there’s never been a formal first lady, so this in itself was really revolutionary to suddenly have this young, glamorous, well-dressed woman at Kim’s side. It did a lot to show him as a young, modern millennial leader.
She would have been instantly recognizable to every single North Korean because she was the lead singer of this extremely well-known singing group. She was always on North Korean TV and center stage, so they would have known exactly who she was when she came out.
And much like Kate Middleton in the United Kingdom, when she came out, she was able to soften her husband’s image a bit, make him seem a bit more approachable, and really proved a public relations gift.
One story I heard was that very early on in Kim’s reign, the couple went to the grand opening of one of the amusement parks that Kim had ordered to be developed in the country as part of his strategy to appeal to his generation — the generation who could potentially support him for 30 or 40 years.
All these foreign diplomats had been invited to the opening of the park — the cameras were there, it was a really big show. A British diplomat even went on one of the rides and sat a row in front of Kim. At one point during the ride, there was some kind of malfunction and it stopped moving. According to people who were there, Kim started to boil and was obviously getting very angry that everything had not gone smoothly during this event.
And apparently his wife went over to him, spoke quietly to him, and just calmed him down. Everything was settled, and they all moved on. As far as we know, everybody survived the event.
Between his mother, his wife, and his sister Kim Yo Jong, who we haven’t talked about, it seems like Kim really trusts women to help him rule. That’s not a usual trait among strongmen.
You’re right, it’s not a usual trait. However, his father also relied a lot on his own sister, so the idea of the supporting-sister role is not exactly new in North Korea.
But Kim Jong Un’s sister does seem to be really good at her job as an adviser, diplomat, and general staffer. It also helps that she’s Kim’s blood — a pure, 100 percent blood relative. That means she can be trusted like very few other people. More than almost anybody else, she has a vested interest in perpetuating the system she benefits from.
The striking thing is that none of these women could ever be the leader in their own right. They have their role — whether it’s the glamorous wife or the organizing sister — supporting Kim Jong Un and making him look good and ensuring nothing untoward happens. But they’ll never lead themselves.