Kim Jong Un is the president of North Korea. We know very little about him, apart from the (little) information disseminated by North Korean propaganda. The true story of Kim, although shrouded in mystery, is nevertheless very interesting. The “great successor”, as Anna Fifield, a Washington Post journalist and one of the world’s leading experts on North Korea, called him in her latest book, has a sui generis biography which is well worth discovering step by step. Flipping through the pages of The Great Successor: The Secret Rise and Rule of Kim Jong Un, we discover that Kim lived for a number of years in the heart of Europe, in Switzerland. We learn new details about his childhood, his lifestyle, the future that the leader dreams of for Pyongyang, the next steps that the North Korean government is likely to take in foreign policy and much more. InsideOver talked over all this and more with the author.
Let’s start immediately with the strict topic. In recent months, all the spotlight has been on Kim Yo Jong and not Kim Jong Un. How do you think the North Korean president’s sister ended up taking center stage?
Although it’s never really clear what’s going on with the leadership of North Korea, the fact that Kim Jong Un has been so absent this year and that his sister has been so prominent means that they are making a succession plan. Until now, there has been no clear successor to Kim Jong Un. According to North Korean culture and the regime’s history, it has to be someone from the Kim family and it has to be a male. But there is no one with any public position who fits this description. Kim Jong Un’s older brother was already passed over once and his son is a young child. The only core family member with any kind of role in the regime is his sister, Kim Yo Jong. It’s hard to believe that she could take over because she’s a young woman, about 31 years old. I can’t imagine 80-year-old generals taking orders from her. But there’s really no one else. So I think the events of the last few weeks — the angry statements, the explosion of the inter-Korean relations office — are all designed to show Kim Yo Jong as being tough and giving her some hardline credentials in the regime. Whether or not Kim Jong Un is seriously ill, he seems to be aware that he needs to start preparing for someone to take over.
From your point of view, what happened to Kim Jong Un? There are those who say that the Great Leader is ill, those who claim that he has lost part of his powers to his sister and those who speak of a kind of diarchy in progress.
I’m very skeptical of the claims that he had a heart operation, simply because the regime guards information about Kim Jong Un’s health extremely closely. But you don’t need to be a doctor to see that he’s at risk of heart disease. He’s morbidly obese and smokes heavily, and he looks in very poor physical shape for a 36-year-old man. So maybe he is concerned about his health, or maybe he was just social distancing during the coronavirus epidemic. But he seems to have had some kind of epiphany that has forced him to think about regime survival. I don’t believe that his sister has seized power. She is clearly very loyal to him and clearly has an interest in keeping this regime in tact. They’re a team working together for their family interests. Kim Jong Un can trust his sister more than he can trust anyone else.
In light of recent tensions, what will North Korea do next?
I think North Korea has been trying to manufacture a crisis. The regime doesn’t like being ignored, and it doesn’t like the sanctions on its economy. Those sanctions have had a devastating impact on the North Korean economy, compounded by the coronavirus and the impact of border closures with China. So I think Kim Jong Un is trying to get the attention back on him, and he sees an opportunity to drive a wedge between South Korea, where the president is very interested in engagement, and the United States, where President Trump waxes and wanes, but anyway is very distracted now.
Despite sanctions and international isolation, Pyongyang has changed a lot. As he recounts in his book, the capital of North Korea has undergone substantial modernization. What can we expect in the coming years?
Kim Jong Un is trying to show that life in North Korea is getting better under his leadership, especially for the loyal elite in the capital whose support keeps his regime in power. He desperately wants to continue that process to that the elite, especially his fellow millennials, see a future in his regime and continue to support him for decades to come. But it’s become much more difficult to get money because of sanctions and because international trade has substantially dried up. That’s what led him to embark on his diplomatic charm offensive in 2018 and what is prompting him to lash out in frustration now.
During his adolescence Kim Jong Un lived for a period in Switzerland, in the heart of Europe. How much did this experience help Kim get to know the West?
Kim Jong Un enjoyed living in Europe — he went skiing in the Swiss Alps, went to Euro Disney and watched NBA basketball games in Paris, and came to Italy. When I went to the “Italia Restaurant” in Pyongyang, which has a proper wood-fired pizza oven, the staff said Kim Jong Un wanted North Korean people to eat international food. Also, when he was at school in Switzerland he, like also Swiss school students, learned about the French Revolution. I often wonder now if he remembers those lessons, and remembers what can happen when rising expectations go unmet. But I don’t think the experience of living in Europe convinced Kim Jong Un to give European-style liberal democracy a try. I think the experience probably showed him that he would just be another person if he were in a meritocracy, that he wouldn’t enjoy the power and privileges he enjoys in North Korea. So probably he returned home after four years in Europe convinced that he couldn’t liberalize at all if he wanted his family to stay in power.
As he has written many times, the North Korean elite lacks nothing. What is Kim Jong Un’s lifestyle?
Kim Jong Un has an extremely lavish lifestyle. He enjoys imported food and liquor, and we’ve seen him pull up to meetings in the newest Mercedes Benz and Rolls Royce cars. He flies his own plane and rides Jet-Skis at his beach resort. There is an entire unit, called Office 39, dedicated to raising money for the family. So he hasn’t suffered because of sanctions.
From a geopolitical point of view, what is North Korea’s strategic objective?
The regime’s strategic objective is to stay in power. That’s Kim Jong Un’s top priority. He, like all dictators, is extremely paranoid and constantly worries about being overthrown or killed. So everything that he does – the nuclear weapons, the tolerance of markets, the diplomatic overtures – are all designed with this in mind. He wants to fend off outside attack, he wants to stop the people from rising up, and he wants to convince the international community he can be trusted as a responsible leader of a nuclear armed state. All so he can continue to enjoy power and wealth in Pyongyang.
Do you believe that unification between the two Koreas is possible?
The unifications of the Koreas is inevitable. Korea was one country for 5,000 years, then was arbitrarily divided seven decades ago. The real question is how are they unified. If the regime collapses tomorrow, does South Korea try to keep the North walled off so it can absorb it slowly and avoid a catastrophic economic shock in the South? Does China try to ensure North Korea exists as a client state on its border? Do the generals take over and we see a military junta? Or does the whole thing come crashing down and Northerners can rush across the border like in the case of Germany? We just don’t know. All I know is that right now, Kim Jong Un seems very confident and assured, and he doesn’t appear to be in danger of losing his position in the near term. But history shows us it’s foolish to make predictions about totalitarian regimes!
A new Singapore, a Vietnam sui generis model, a miniature China or another option: what do you foresee for the future of North Korea?
I think Kim Jong Un wants to be a developmental dictator of the type that’s been seen around Asia: a strongman with a strong military who allows economic freedom but not political freedom. The problem is that the other countries nominally led by Communist Parties, like China and Vietnam, are not hereditary dynasties. I think it’s extremely hard for North Korea to follow even a Chinese- style reform and opening because China has had leaders with names other than Mao. How could Kim say that he, or his sister, was the best person for the job? That would be extremely difficult. But I think that’s what he’d like to try to do, and that this is why he showed so much footage of glittering Singapore after his summit with Trump. Here was an Asian nation with a strong rule of law that had transformed its economy. He was signalling that this was his aspiration too. But not even the most sympathetic analyst of North Korea could think that North Korea is going to become Singapore any decade soon.