Review: ‘The Great Successor’ paints a macabre portrait of Kim Jong Un


Both inherited a family business and are surrounded by sycophants.

Both make endless false claims, blame others for their mistakes and have been lampooned — and vastly underestimated — by their critics.

One boasts he is a “super genius,” the other a “genius among geniuses.” One blasts the other as a “total nut job” and is called “an old lunatic” in return. One is “beloved and respected leader,” the other “your favorite president, me!”

Is it any wonder that President Trump and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un get along so well?

Anna Fifield’s “The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un” is required reading to fully appreciate Trump’s bizarre bromance with the young tyrant. The two leaders have met three times so far, and while Kim shows no sign of giving up his nuclear weapons, Trump seemed smitten by what he calls “love letters” from the dictator.

Admittedly, the first serious English-language biography of Kim is less playful than its title suggests. The veteran Washington Post correspondent has produced a macabre portrait of a ruling dynasty that has inexplicably survived for seven decades — nearly as long as the Soviet Union before it imploded. If the prose sometimes lags, the reporting is groundbreaking due to Fifield’s dozen or so visits to North Korea and her dogged ability to track down Kim’s childhood playmates, relatives and others around the globe.

Kim was only 27 when he assumed power in December 2011 after the death of his father, Kim Jung Il. Wailing crowds lined the streets for the stage-managed funeral, but few mourned a cruel leader who was the “world’s largest buyer of Hennessy Paradise cognac” at the height of a terrible famine in the mid-1990s, Fifield writes.


Little was known about the pudgy young heir, even by the South Korean intelligence agencies that obsessively track their northern neighbor.

Fifield reveals that Kim was sent at age 12 to study under a fake name and a Brazilian passport at an elite private school in Bern, Switzerland. He became obsessed with action star Jean-Claude Van Damme and the Chicago Bulls. Guarded by an aunt and uncle — who Fifield interviewed in exile — he swam on the French Riviera, skied in the Alps and visited Euro Disney in Paris.

The idyll ended when he was ordered home to attend Kim Il Sung Military University, named for his grandfather and founder of the totalitarian state. Needless to say, he graduated as the top student. In 2009, when he was 25, his ailing father named him successor, and propaganda organs quickly spun a personality cult around him. It was the first time most North Koreans knew he existed.

They were told Kim could drive a car and hit a light bulb with a rifle at 100 yards, all by the age of 3. An official biography claimed “he had perfect pitch, that he could ride the wildest horses at age six, and [at age 9] had twice beaten a visiting European powerboat-racing champion.”

The official humbug helped hide the fact that Kim had no political or military experience when he took over. U.S. officials hoped the country’s first Western-educated leader would finally reform the Stalinist state and join the outside world. Other experts predicted mass instability or a military coup. No one knew.

Foreigners mocked his ballooning girth, high-fade haircut and attire “fashionable only in Communist holdover states,” as Fifield puts it. In China, North Korea’s closest ally, he was ridiculed as “Kim Fatty the Third” despite Chinese censors’ efforts to erase the nickname from the internet. He gave himself a slew of obsequious titles, including my personal favorite: “best incarnation of love.”

But Kim proved far more adept that his skeptics and foes expected. His father had spoken only once in public — and only a single phrase — during 17 years in absolute power. Kim addressed a bank of microphones months after taking office. He also launched the North Korean version of a charm offensive — visiting schools, hospitals and farms, hugging children and smiling for the cameras.

More important, he allowed ad hoc private markets to open for the first time, a move that has raised living standards and eased the country’s desperate poverty. North Korea now has a vibrant entrepreneurial class, and by most estimates, the economy is growing steadily despite international sanctions.


But repression remains brutal and pervasive. Cellphones are not connected to the outside world and there is no internet access. “Every household has a radio attached to the wall that can never be turned off and can never be tuned to a different station,” Fifield notes. It always extols the genius and beneficence of the Kim dynasty, she adds.

Worse, a United Nations special commission found in 2014 that rape, torture, starvation and other abuses at North Korea’s vast political prisons were “essential components” of Kim’s rule. It recommended he face charges of crimes against humanity.

Early on, Kim consolidated his grip on power with purges of former top aides.

One senior army general didn’t just disappear, he ceased to exist, his face erased from official photos and name deleted from documents. The de facto defense minister was publicly executed by anti-aircraft gun. Among his alleged transgressions was falling asleep while Kim was speaking. Kim’s uncle by marriage, once one of the regime’s most powerful figures, was declared “despicable human scum” and also executed. His supposed crimes included not clapping loud enough for Kim.

In February 2017, Kim’s older half brother was assassinated in a busy airport terminal in Malaysia, garnering global headlines. Kim Jong Nam died, in terrible pain, barely 15 minutes after two women had rushed up and rubbed two chemicals on his face that, when combined, formed the deadly VX nerve agent.

Kim Jong Nam had lived in Macao for years, apparently running online gambling sites, but Fifield reports he was also a CIA informant. It seems plausible: He was carrying $120,000 in cash and 12 vials of antidote for poisons, including VX, when he was killed, she says.

The two women, one from Vietnam and one from Indonesia, claimed they thought they were part of a TV prank show. They were charged with murder but ultimately were released.


Kim, Fifield writes, was “sending a defiant public message to defectors: wherever you are, we can get you — and it will hurt.” Kim, she added, also sent a message to the world. “He had his own flesh and blood killed with a chemical weapon in a crowded public place. So what? The verbal condemnation was swift but there was little other real effect on Pyongyang.”

More worrying, of course, are Kim’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. North Korea has conducted six nuclear tests so far, four since Kim took power. The most powerful, a suspected thermonuclear device, was detonated nine months after Trump entered the White House. U.S. officials say Kim has steadily expanded his nuclear arsenal in the 18 months since he has begun sharing mash notes with Trump.

Like Trump, Kim’s critics — at least those safely overseas — have mocked him every step of the way. But Fifield convincingly argues that while ruthless, Kim has acted in a rational, calculating way that has worked to his advantage.

His state propaganda certainly agrees. In 2017, North Korea boasted that 67.4 million stories were published about Kim — in English — in a 10-day period, or 230,000 an hour. Even Trump couldn’t claim that.

“The Great Successor”

Anna Fifield

PublicAffairs: 336 pages; $28

Drogin is Washington deputy bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times. He is the author of “Curveball: Spies, Lies, and the Con Man Who Caused a War,” which won the 2007 Cornelius Ryan Award for best nonfiction book on international affairs.