Books

In discussion with Anna Fifield, author of 'The Great Successor'

by Martin Laflamme

Contributing Writer

On June 11, The Washington Post Beijing bureau chief Anna Fifield’s new book, “The Great Successor” will be published by PublicAffairs. The Japan Times’ contributing writer Martin Laflamme discusses with Fifield the experience of writing her book, how she tracked down sources and her thoughts on Kim Jong Un’s North Korea.

Many defectors told you that even before they fled North Korea, they understood that much of the propaganda was bunkum. Some even used very explicit language to say that Kim Jong Un was “a piece of s—-,” that he was “not capable” and that “they knew the truth.” However, given the constant indoctrination and state of total surveillance that is prevalent in North Korea, such views are surprising. Is it possible that these thoughts were formed after the defectors fled and then projected backwards?

Many North Koreans know that their country is not the socialist paradise it’s cracked up to be because the vast majority have seen movies and dramas from the outside world. I have not met a single escapee from North Korea during Kim Jong Un’s reign who hasn’t watched outside media. They’ve seen soppy South Korean rom-coms, they’ve seen Chinese action films, they’ve seen Bollywood hits. Some have even seen pornography. So they know that the outside world is much richer and freer than North Korea. But even armed with this information, most are unable to do anything about it. The system of punishment is so severe and all-encompassing in North Korea that people who criticize the regime, or even express a desire to live in South Korea, could find themselves in a hard labor camp for the rest of their lives, perhaps with their parents and their children and their spouse. Faced with that prospect, North Koreans try to leave rather than try to change the system. So I believe them when they said they knew the truth while they were there.

But I also know through years of reporting that defector testimony is a very tricky thing — not necessarily because they’re trying to embellish their stories, although some do, but because of the trauma they’ve been through. I took great care to interview escapees at length, and I never paid any of them for their testimony — as many Japanese and South Korean media outlets do. This is against my and my newspaper’s journalistic ethics, and it sharply reduces the chances of them sensationalizing their stories.

At the time you researched the book, you were unable to find a single North Korean who had escaped the country’s concentration camps after Kim Jong Un came to power in 2011. Thus, we don’t know how conditions there might have changed under his rule. Have you found any such escapees since then? If so, what have you learned?

I was reporting this book between 2016 and 2018, but it was during 2017 in particular that I was trying to find someone who’d been in a re-education camp during the Kim Jong Un era. That’s five years into his rule. But I couldn’t find anyone, and I couldn’t even find a specialist activist who knew of anyone. To me, this is a reflection of the fact that Kim Jong Un has fortified the borders even more and has increased the penalties for trying to escape. We can see that in the numbers of North Koreans making it to South Korea, as reported by the government in Seoul. They’ve fallen dramatically. But thanks to satellite imagery, we can see that the camps still exist. There’s no reason to think that anything has gotten better.

What is the discovery you made while researching the book which, in your view, is the most significant for our understanding of the Kim Jong Un regime?

Well, I hope that readers find lots of interesting and illuminating anecdotes in (the book) that provide insights into this most enigmatic of leaders. But I think the most significant thing is what is missing, not what is there.

The accounts of Kim Jong Un’s childhood — from the sushi chef Kenji Fujimoto, from his guardians and classmates in Switzerland — show a boy who was spoiled and coddled and really had no chance of growing up normal. But they do not show a psychopath. There are no stories about him torturing kittens or showing other signs of a personality disorder.

When he was first announced as successor, there was a lot of speculation that Kim Jong Un’s education in Switzerland and time in the West would make him a more liberal and open-minded leader, that he would embark on significant reforms.

In fact, I think the opposite is true. His time in Switzerland proved to him that, if it weren’t for his family and its totalitarian system, he would be a nobody. Not particularly good at anything, not particularly charismatic, not particularly attractive in any way. Mediocre. His time in Switzerland must have served to convince him even more than anything else that he needs to keep the family dynasty intact. Nowhere else can he be top dog like he is in North Korea.

Ko Yong Suk and Ri Gang, the maternal aunt and uncle of Kim Jong Un, now live in the U.S. Given that Kim Jong Un showed no qualms in 2013 murdering another uncle (by marriage), Jang Song Thaek, they must no doubt try to live as discreet a life as possible. How did you find them?

They are in a different situation because they have kept their heads down and because they pose no threat to Kim Jong Un. Jang definitely did. He was still inside the regime and building his own power base. He had money and he had power so, from a cold-hearted dictatorial perspective, it made perfect sense for Kim Jong Un to get rid of him.

This aunt and uncle, who left Kim Jong Un behind in Switzerland and moved to America, emerged just a little from behind their anonymous life to sue some defectors in South Korea for defamation. So I went to see their lawyer and he asked them if they’d meet me. To my surprise, they did. I flew to the U.S. and spent an entire weekend with them, visiting their home and their dry-cleaning store.

How did you convince them to talk to you? Were they not afraid that this would draw unnecessary attention and increase personal risk for them and their children?

They were afraid, and I took great steps to preserve their anonymity, as I do with all defectors. But the uncle, Ri Gang, was trying to get back into Kim Jong Un’s good graces. Who knows why. I certainly didn’t believe it was only because he wanted to be a bridge between the U.S. and North Korea, as he told me — and he actually wanted to talk. He thought that if he defended the regime and its right to have a nuclear program then it would help him to get permission to visit North Korea. But his wife, Kim Jong Un’s maternal aunt, did not want him to go, and must have been relieved that it didn’t appear to work.

What do we know about the family of Kim Jong Nam, Kim Jong Un’s half-brother, that lives in Beijing? Have you been able to see them? How has their life been affected since his assassination in Malaysia?

Everyone related to Kim Jong Nam has gone to ground since his assassination. Understandably so. The men in this family in particular have reason to fear what might happen to them. The Kim family claims legitimacy in part on its supposed “Paektu bloodline” — the idea that the family descended from the mountain that is the mythical home of the Korean people. Therefore anyone — or rather, in North Korean hierarchy, any man — from this family could theoretically claim the right to the throne and be a threat to Kim Jong Un.

The person most in danger is Kim Han Sol, one of Kim Jong Nam’s sons. He has appeared in the media and has been openly critical of the system, both things that got his father in trouble. He and his mother and sister went into hiding after the assassination in Malaysia. Of course I, like many other journalists, have been trying to find him. That is our instinct as journalists. But at the same time, I have been kind of hoping that no one finds him. He deserves to be able to live a normal life. Or as normal as possible.

The Kim family seems to have had a fondness for fake Brazilian passports. Both Kim Jong Un and his father, Kim Jong Il, had one at some point. Do we know if the Brazilian government ever did anything about it?

After one story showing a copy of Kim Jong Un’s Brazilian passport — chapeau to the reporters at Reuters for getting that — the Brazilian foreign ministry said it was investigating. But funnily enough, we haven’t heard much, or anything, from them since.

Many of the core relatives of the Kim family appear to have a troubled relationship with their country and the regime. Ri Nam Ok, the niece of Kim Jong Il, married a Frenchman and settled in France. The daughter of Jang Song Thaek, Kim Jong Un’s uncle, committed suicide in Paris when her parents refused to allow her to marry the man of her choice. Kim Jong Nam spent most of his adult life in exile, in Macau, and his mother, who suffered from mental problems, spent much of her life in Moscow. The sister of Kim Jong Un’s mother took refuge in the U.S. Embassy in Bern and eventually received asylum in the U.S. What do you make of all this?

Well, who wouldn’t? It’s a brutal regime that exerts huge amounts of control over the elite too. Kim Jong Nam and his cousin, Ri Nam Ok, were like birds in a cage, their movements severely restricted and their life enveloped in paranoia, even in Europe. All of them had to live in varying degrees of secrecy but all of them were allowed to travel and live a good life outside. For some — like Kim Jong Nam’s mother — that was a perk of being in the royal family. But, for others, it must have opened their eyes to an alternative. But what I find most interesting is that many of them are still in some sort of cahoots with the regime. They were in privileged positions and seemed unable to completely let go of the benefits that came with that. Either way, we can see that this is an extremely dysfunctional family.

Many observers underestimated Kim Jong Un when he came to power, but he defied all predictions. What are the main lessons from his first eight years in power?

I hope readers leave with the understanding that Kim Jong Un has approached the job of totalitarian dictator in a very strategic and calculated way. There was a lot of skepticism indeed in 2011 when he, a totally unqualified and inexperienced 27-year-old, took over the regime started by his grandfather and perpetuated by his father. But he’s done it. We are more than seven years in, and there’s no sign that he’s anything but in complete control.

There’s a tendency to view Kim Jong Un as a cartoon character-type villain, but to treat him as a joke is to underestimate him. He’s a threat to the outside world, particularly to the United States and Japan; he’s a threat to the people at the top of the regime, even when they’re close relatives; and he’s a threat to the 25 million people of North Korea who live in his prison state.