8 Jun 2019

Anna Fifield: 'Don't underestimate Kim Jong Un'

From Saturday Morning, 8:10 am on 8 June 2019

North Koreans are not "robots brainwashed by their weird leader", just ordinary people trying to make ends meet, says award-winning New Zealand journalist Anna Fifield.

She lifts the curtain on the strange and brutal North Korean dictator in a new book called The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un​.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attends the 4th Plenary Meeting of the 7th Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea in Pyongyang.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attends the 4th Plenary Meeting of the 7th Central Committee of the Workers' Party of Korea in Pyongyang. Photo: AP / KCNA via KNS

Anna Fifield

Anna Fifield Photo: Supplied

The story of North Korea begins in 1945 when two American army colonels – including the future Secretary of State Dean Rusk – decided how Korea would be divided, Fifield says.

"At the end of World War II, Korea – which had been one country for about 5,000 years – was arbitrarily divided in half.

"They simply took out a National Geographic map and just looked at the peninsula, drew a line halfway across at the 38th parallel and said 'Well, that makes sense'. They said to the Soviets 'how about you take care of the northern half? We'll look after the southern half."

What was a temporary solution has now existed for more than 70 years – with North Korea overtaking the Soviet Union as the longest running communist country in history.

Posthumous portrait of Kim Jong-il

Posthumous portrait of Kim Jong-il Photo: Joseph Ferris III / CC BY 2.0

Kim Il-Sung was the first North Korean ruler from 1948 until 1994 when his son Kim Jong Il took over, ruling until his own death in 2011.

The fact that the subsequent leader was not Kim Jong Il's first son but his third has more to do with the boys' mothers than the boys themselves, Fifield says.

The first son Kim Jong Nam was born in 1971 to his unofficial first wife Song Hye-rim, who had a nervous breakdown when he left her and fled to Moscow when Kim Jong Nam was a child.

Kim Jong Nam grew up in a "very abnormal, isolated situation", Fifield says, and did not know his two younger brothers from his father's subsequent marriage – Kim Jong Chul (born in 1981) and Kim Jong Un (born in 1983 or 1984).

Their mother Ko Yong-hui pushed for her two sons to inherit the Kim dynasty, Fifield says.

A reported medical condition may be the reason Kim Jong Chul – who has been spotted at Eric Clapton concerts – didn't qualify for the leadership job, Fifield says.

"The sushi chef who lived in the royal household when [the second and third sons] were young said that Kim Jong Chul was effeminate, like a girl is how he described him, whatever that means."

Whereas younger brother Kim Jong Un​ seems to have had a natural predilection for power, Fifield says.

His childhood years spent living in an ordinary Swiss neighbourhood may have increased Kim Jong Un's resolve to keep the North Korean system intact, she suggests.

"It really struck me [when visiting the neighbourhood where Kim Jong Un​ lived in Switzerland] that he must have thought when he was there that if it wasn't for North Korea he would just be a very ordinary person. There would be nothing special about him, he would not be revered and treated like a future king, a little princeling."

In 2001, older brother Kim Jong Nam made international headlines and "embarrassed the regime" when he was caught trying to sneak his son into Japan to go to Tokyo Disney. He was assassinated in Malaysia in 2017.

Kim Jong-Nam, the eldest son of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il, on June 4, 2010.

Kim Jong-Nam, the eldest son of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il, on June 4, 2010. Photo: JoongAng Sunday / AFP

Although there was no indication that Kim Jong Nam wanted to lead the country, his younger brother​ is paranoid about potential rivals and eliminates anyone who could possibly contest his power, Fifield says.

While Kim Jong Un​ may be an easy target for jokes, she says, it's a mistake not to take him seriously.

Not only has the North Korean leader radically defied expectations in developing a North Korean nuclear programme, he has also – against the odds – managed to keep hold of the regime.

"Yes, he's a cartoonist's dream, but to treat him as if he is Little Rocket Man or a nut job is really to underestimate him.

"To make fun of [Kim Jong Un​] is to underestimate the threat he poses both to the outside world in terms of his nuclear programme, but also the threat he poses to 25 million North Korean people on a daily basis, who live in an extremely severe police state where they have no ability to speak their minds at all.

"The proof that he's not mad is the fact that he's still in power. If he were irrational he would not have been able to hold on to this regime for 7.5 years.

"All of these things he's done ... make perfect sense if you're a totalitarian dictator whose primary concern in life is keeping your job."

FILE - This Saturday, May 4, 2019, file photo provided by the North Korean government shows a test of weapon systems, in North Korea.

File photo provided by the North Korean government shows a test of weapon systems, in North Korea on May 4, 2019 Photo: AP

Life is still extremely difficult for most North Koreans – many homes don't have electricity or running water – but has improved slightly under Kim Jong-un's rule because the state doesn't interfere as much as it used to, Fifield says.

"There are cafes, there's a German beer hall, people go rollerblading, there's just this sense that life has got a lot better."

North Korea now has a middle class who are hungry for information about the world beyond their borders.

They get this via memory cards and USB sticks loaded with foreign media content that are snuck into North Korea in sacks of rice and food boxes, Fifield says.

"Now, in the [North Korean] marketplaces they sell food but they also sell information, in a way.

"Customers go and trade in their old USB sticks or buy new ones full of foreign media, which is banned in North Korea.

"Everybody has this knowledge now, that North Korea is not the socialist paradise that it's cracked up to be, that China is much richer and South Korea is much, much richer. There's no pretense about that anymore."

North Korea is an extremely tough place to report on and also a fascinating place because there are still so many unanswered questions, Fifield says,

"How has this system managed to survive?… It's just a constant puzzle."

A photo taken on June 4, 2019 shows a 'Grand Mass Gymnastics and Artistic Performance' at the May Day stadium in Pyongyang.

A photo taken on June 4, 2019 shows a 'Grand Mass Gymnastics and Artistic Performance' at the May Day stadium in Pyongyang. Photo: AFP or licensors

In the postscript of The Great Successor, Anna Fifield expresses the wish that the children of North Korea could speak and explore and watch as much Netflix as her own son gets to.

"It wasn't until I said [North Korean children] have no internet and can't watch Netflix that [their plight] really hit home to him. That, to him, was the ultimate human rights abuse."

"There is a tendency to view North Koreans as robots who have been brainwashed by their weird leader. And I wanted to show the humanity that I've encountered, as well, and to show they ordinary human beings like us… they are just trying to get ahead and make ends meet.

"If people talk about punishing North Korea they're really talking about punishing those people. Those are the other people that suffer on a daily basis because of this regime.

"It's really hard to exaggerate how severe the punishments are inside North Korea for what are deemed to be political crimes. A political crime could be asking a rhetorical question about why are they spending so much money on nuclear weapons when we can't feed ourselves? That's the kind of thing that could have you sent to a hard labour camp in North Korea … it's not just the perpetrator who would get sent, but they imprison three generations of a family. So you may be willing to risk your life and speak out but are you willing to risk the lives of your children or your parents or your spouse to make a point? The answer for many people is simply no."

Fifield doesn't expect to be allowed back into North Korea and says she would not go if invited.

"I think North Korea will definitely object strongly to this book and I will not be going back to find out just how strenuously."

Anna Fifield is the Beijing bureau chief for The Washington Post and was previously the Tokyo bureau chief focusing on Japan and the Koreas. Prior to that, she worked for the Financial Times for 13 years, reporting from almost 20 countries including Iran, Libya and North Korea. She is the 2018 Shorenstein Journalism Award recipient for her outstanding reporting on Asia.​