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Number 1 Shimbun

On the twisted trail of Comrade Kim

 05 1

 

By Anna Fifield
 

In this excerpt from a fascinating new book, the Washington Post correspondent describes her obsession to discover the secrets of the young tyrant who now stars on the global stage

 

I was sitting on Air Koryo flight 152 to Pyongyang, ready to make my sixth trip to the North Korean capital but my first since the third-generation leader, Kim Jong Un, had taken over. It was August 28, 2014.

Going to North Korea as a journalist is always a bizarre and fascinating and frustrating experience, but this trip would reach a new level of surrealness.

For one, I was sitting next to Jon Andersen, a three-hundred-pound professional wrestler from San Francisco who goes by the ring name of Strong Man and is known for moves including the diving neckbreaker and gorilla press drop. We settled into the red seats of the aging Ilyushin jetliner, which, with their white-doily-covered headrests and gold brocade cushions, looked like armchairs from Grandma’s front room.

Andersen was one of three American wrestlers who, their best days behind them, had washed up in Japan, where their size had helped make them the top attractions they no longer were at home. They enjoyed modest levels of fame and income there.

But they were still in the market for new opportunities, so the three were on their way to a gig like no other: the first-ever Pyongyang International Pro Wrestling Games, a weekend of martial arts-related events organized by Antonio Inoki, a lantern-jawed Japanese wrestler who was promoting peace through sports.

As we took off, Andersen told me he was curious to see what North Korea was really like, to get past the clichés of the American media. I didn’t have the heart to tell him that he was flying into a charade crafted over decades specifically to make sure no visitor could see what North Korea was really like, that he would not have one unplanned encounter or one ordinary meal.

The next time I saw Andersen, he was wearing tiny black Lycra shorts with STRONGMAN emblazoned across his butt. He came romping into the Ryugyong Chung Ju-yung Gymnasium in Pyongyang in front of thirteen thousand carefully selected North Koreans as the sound system blared: “He’s a macho man.”

He seemed so much bigger without his clothes on. I gasped at his bicep and thigh muscles, which seemed to be straining to escape his skin like sausage meat from its casing. I could only imagine the shock that went through the North Koreans, many of whom had experienced a famine that killed hundreds of thousands of their compatriots.

It was as foreign and as mind-bending as anything I’d ever seen in North Korea: American farce in the home of the world’s most malevolent propagandists. It soon dawned on the North Koreans in the audience, no strangers to deception, that it was all highly choreographed, more entertainment than sport. With that realization, they laughed at the theatrics.

I, however, had trouble discerning what was real and what was not.

 

IT WAS SIX YEARS since I’d last been to North Korea. My previous visit was with the New York Philharmonic in the winter of 2008. It was a trip that had, at the time, felt to me like a turning point in history.

The United States’ most prestigious orchestra was performing in a country founded on hatred of America. The American and North Korean flags stood like bookends at either side of the stage, while the orchestra played George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris.”

“Someday a composer might write a work entitled Americans in Pyongyang,” conductor Lorin Maazel told the North Koreans in the theater. They later played “Arirang,” the heartrending Korean folk song about separation, which visibly affected even these carefully selected Pyongyang residents.

But the turning point never came.

That same year, North Korea’s “Dear Leader,” Kim Jong Il, suffered a debilitating stroke that almost claimed his life. From that point on, the regime was focused on one thing and one thing only: ensuring that the Kim dynasty remained intact.

Behind the scenes, plans were taking shape to install Kim Jong Il’s youngest son, a man who was at that time still only twenty-four, as the next leader of North Korea. It would be two more years until his coronation was announced to the outside world.

When it was, a few analysts hoped that Kim Jong Un would prove to be a reformer. After all, the young man had been educated in Switzerland, traveled in the West, and been exposed to capitalism. Surely he would try to bring some of that to North Korea?

Similar hopes had greeted the ascension of London-educated eye doctor Bashar al-Assad in Syria in 2000 and would later await Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who toured Silicon Valley and let women drive after taking power in Saudi Arabia in 2017.

But mostly, there was a different kind of optimism—an optimism that the end was nigh.

From nearby Seoul to faraway Washington, DC, many government officials and analysts boldly predicted—sometimes in whispers, sometimes in shouts—widespread instability, a mass exodus into China, a military coup, imminent collapse. Behind all the doom mongering was one shared thought: surely this regime couldn’t survive the transition to a third totalitarian leader called Kim, much less to a twentysomething who’d been educated at fancy European schools and had an obsession about the Chicago Bulls—a young man with no known military or government background.

I, too, was doubtful. I couldn’t imagine North Korea under a third generation of Kim family leadership. I had been following the country, up close and from afar, since the Financial Times posted me to Seoul to cover both Koreas in 2004. This system could not continue existing into a third generation. Could it?

 

THE EXPERTS WHO PREDICTED widespread reforms were wrong. Those who predicted imminent collapse were wrong. I was wrong.

In 2014, after six years away from the Korean Peninsula, I returned to the region as a correspondent for the Washington Post.

A few months into my posting, and almost three years into Kim Jong Un’s tenure, I went to cover the pro-wrestling tournament in Pyongyang. The things journalists do to get a visa for North Korea.

I was stunned.

I knew there had been a construction boom in the capital, but I had no idea how widespread it was. It seemed like a new high-rise apartment block or theater was going up on every second block in the center of the city. Previously, it had been unusual to see even a tractor, but suddenly there were trucks and cranes helping the men in olive-green military uniforms put up buildings.

When I’d walked on the streets before, no one as much as glanced at me, even though the sight of a foreigner was a rare thing. Now, there was an easier air in the city. People were better dressed, kids rollerbladed in new rinks, and the atmosphere was altogether more relaxed.

There was no doubt that life was still grim in the showcase capital: the lines for the broken-down trolley buses were still long, there were still plenty of hunched-over old ladies carrying huge sacks on their backs, and there was still not a fat person in sight. Not even a remotely chubby one. Apart from the One. But it was clear that Pyongyang, home to the elite who kept Kim Jong Un in power, was not a city on the ropes. Seven decades after the establishment of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, I saw no signs of cracks in the communist façade.

Over those seven decades, the world had seen plenty of other brutal dictators rise and reign, tormenting their people while advancing their own interests. But what sets the three Kims apart is the durability of their family’s hold on the country. During Kim Il Sung’s reign, the United States went through nine presidents, starting with Harry S. Truman and ending with Bill Clinton. Japan cycled through twenty-one prime ministers. Kim Il Sung outlived Mao Zedong by almost two decades and Joseph Stalin by four. North Korea has now existed for longer than the Soviet Union.

I wanted to figure out how this young man and the regime he inherited had defied the odds. I wanted to find out everything there was to know about Kim Jong Un.

 

SO I SET OUT to talk to everyone who’d ever met him, searching for clues about this most enigmatic of leaders. It was tough: so few people had met him, and even among that select group, the number of people who’ve spent any meaningful time with him was tiny. But I went in search of any insight I could get.

I found Kim Jong Un’s aunt and uncle, who had been his guardians while he was at school in Switzerland. I went to the Swiss capital of Bern to look for clues about his formative teenage years, sitting outside his old apartment and walking around his former school.

I twice had lunch in a grimy restaurant in the Japanese Alps with Kenji Fujimoto, a down-and-out cook who made sushi for Kim’s father and who became something of a playmate to the future leader. I talked to people who had gone to North Korea as part of basketballer Dennis Rodman’s entourage and heard tales of drunkenness and questionable behavior.

As soon as I heard Kim Jong Un’s older half brother, Kim Jong Nam, had been killed in Kuala Lumpur, I immediately got on a plane and went to the spot where he had been assassinated just a few hours before. I waited outside the morgue where his body was held, watching angry North Korean officials coming and going. I went to the North Korean embassy and discovered they were so annoyed with reporters that they’d actually removed the button on the doorbell at the gate.

I found Kim Jong Nam’s cousin, the woman who essentially became his sister and stayed in touch with him long after her defection and his exile. She had been living an entirely new life under an entirely new identity for the previous quarter century.

Then, amid the frenzy of diplomacy in 2018, it suddenly became a lot easier to find people who’d met the North Korean leader.

South Koreans and Americans had arranged and attended Kim Jong Un’s summits with presidents Moon Jae-in and Donald Trump. I talked to people who’d talked with him in Pyongyang, from a South Korean singer to a German sports official. I watched his motorcade zoom past me in Singapore. I searched for any understanding to be gleaned from any encounter with this puzzling potentate.

I also repeatedly asked the North Korean diplomats assigned to the mission at the United Nations—a collection of urbane officials who lived together on Roosevelt Island in the East River, sometimes jokingly referred to as a socialist republic in New York City—if I could have an interview with Kim Jong Un. It was a long shot but not a completely crazy idea. After all, Kim Il Sung had lunch with a group of foreign journalists shortly before his death in 1994.

 

SO EVERY TIME WE met—always over lunch at a steakhouse in mid-town Manhattan, where they always ordered the forty-eight-dollar filet mignon rather than the daily special—I would ask. Each time, I was met with guffaws.

On the most recent occasion, a month after Kim Jong Un’s summit with Donald Trump in the middle of 2018, the suave diplomat responsible for American media, Ambassador Ri Yong Phil, laughed at me and said, “You can dream.”
Rather than dreaming, I set out to hear about the reality outside the fake capital, in the places that the regime wouldn’t let me visit. I found North Koreans who knew Kim Jong Un, not personally but through his policies: people who’d lived through his reign and had managed to escape it.

Over my years covering North Korea, I’ve met scores, perhaps even hundreds, who’ve escaped from the Kimist state. They’re often called “defectors,” but I don’t like that word. It implies that they’ve done something wrong by fleeing the regime. I prefer to call them “escapees” or “refugees.”

It is becoming increasingly difficult to find people willing to talk. This is partly because the flow of escapees has slowed to a trickle during the Kim Jong Un years, the result of stronger border security and rising living standards inside the country. It is also because of a growing expectation that escapees will be paid for their testimony, an ethical no-no for me.

But through groups that help North Koreans to escape or settle down in South Korea, I managed to find dozens of people who would talk to me without payment. They were from all walks of life: officials and traders who’d thrived in Pyongyang, people in the border regions who were earning their livings through the markets, those who’d ended up in brutal regime prisons for the most frivolous of offenses.

There were people who had also been optimistic that this young leader would bring about positive change, and there were those who remained proud that he’d built a nuclear program that North Korea’s richer neighbors had not.

I met some in South Korea, often at down-market barbecue restaurants in satellite suburbs after they’d finished work for the day. I talked to others near the banks of the Mekong River as they stopped for a pause in their perilous escape, sitting on the floor with them in dingy hotel rooms in Laos and Thailand.

And most dangerous of all, I met some in northern China. China treats escapees from North Korea as economic migrants, meaning they would be repatriated and subjected to severe punishment if they were caught. But hiding out in borrowed apartments, they bravely told me their stories.

Over hundreds of hours of interviews across eight countries, I managed to piece together a jigsaw puzzle called Kim Jong Un.

What I learned did not bode well for the twenty-five million people still trapped inside North Korea. ❶


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Excerpted with permission from The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, published by Public Affairs, 2019 © by Anna Fifield. She is the Beijing bureau chief for the Washington Post.

Published in: August 2019

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