The Great Successor (Review

Posted January 8, 2019

Categories: Articles, Korea

Review of The Great Successor, Anna Fifield (Public Affairs, 2019), 308 pages


North Korea is a notoriously unchanging place. In its nearly 75 years of existence, the country has had only three leaders – and they were all related to each other. The Kim dynasty has presided over the closest thing to a totalitarian regime that the world has seen since the end of World War II and the death of Stalin. The state dominates everything, and there is practically no civil society. Even Romania under Nicolae Ceausescu had a couple dissident intellectuals. North Korea has none.


When the grandson of founder Kim Il Sung took over in 2014, most knowledgeable observers expected more of the same. Kim Jong Un was only 24 when he assumed the top leadership spot. He’d spent a couple years of schooling in Switzerland and was known to love basketball. Otherwise, he seemed determined to emulate his grandfather, Kim Il Sung, in everything from hairstyle and girth to the ruthless elimination of rivals. Kim Jong Un showed no sign of interest in altering his regime’s would-be totalitarianism.


And yet, as Washington Post journalist Anna Fifield explains in her new book, The Great Successor, North Korea has indeed changed in the half-dozen years of Kim Jong Un’s reign. The most apparent changes are the ones that have dominated the headlines: Kim’s achievement of two of the major goals of his predecessors. He tested a nuclear weapon, unofficially joining the world’s exclusive nuclear club. And he managed to arrange a meeting with a U.S. president not once but three times – and without negotiating away in advance the infamous nuclear complex.


Kim has managed to do achieve these results by skillfully playing to the strengths and weaknesses of his interlocutors. He has alternately threatened and flattered Donald Trump, which is the same negotiating style the U.S. president prefers. He has held out the hope of greater engagement with South Korean President Moon Jae-in. And he has secured the qualified support of Chinese leader Xi Jinping.


This geopolitical maneuvering has allowed the new North Korean leader to implement policies that have initiated more profound changes in the country. In addition to his nuclear weapons advances and geopolitical successes, Kim Jong Un has permitted an unprecedented growth in market activity inside North Korea.


Capitalism is not new to North Korea. Both Kim Il Sung and his son Kim Jong Il experimented with various market mechanisms: free-trade zones, foreign direct investment, a joint industrial zone with South Korea, expanded farmers markets, and the like. But the first two Kims were always concerned about the potential of market forces to challenge the undisputed authority of the state. So, until recently, the government and the market were in a perpetual tug-of-war, with the former cracking down on the latter by throwing entrepreneurs in prison, devaluing the currency, and disrupting the private markets from time to time.


But as Fifield details in her book, Kim Jong Un has ushered in a détente with the new entrepreneurial class, the dongju or masters of money. As long as this new class maintains its loyalty to the state – and diverts a significant portion of profits to state agencies or corrupt officials – it not only get to keep much of its wealth but can flaunt it as well.


A master of money might buy mining and mineral rights from the central government authorities and then take over mines that have been abandoned because of a lack of electricity and the equipment needed to bring out the minerals. They invest in the mine to get it up and running again. They hire workers who, unlike when working for the state, will receive a decent wage. They pay off ministry officials and buy protection from local party cadres and officials in the prosecutor’s office. Then they take in the cash and pay a share of their profits – about 30 percent – to the regime as “loyalty funds.”


These masters of money have changed the landscape of North Korea. Fifield describes the various pleasure palaces of Pyongyang that had once been the exclusive domain of top party officials – expensive restaurants and cafés, clinics for cosmetic surgery, pricey apartments and department stores – that are now open to the merely rich. The strict class hierarchy of the system – core, wavering, and hostile – has eroded. You can become a member of the new elite by taking economic risks. In this way, a new class has emerged that is dependent on the state – bribery remains essential – but also somewhat independent as well. North Koreans can, if they’re fortunate, dispense with state-provided jobs, buy their food at the ostensibly private markets, and even go off the old and unreliable energy grid with the help of solar panels obtained from China.


It’s not just the rich who have prospered in the new environment. “Small acts of private enterprise were tolerated, if not endorsed,” Fifield writes. “There would be no more clamping down on people who were trying to make ends meet by selling rice cakes or cutting hair or selling DVD players brought in from China, which handled almost all – about 90 percent – of North Korea’s trade. Farmers could keep a little of their harvest to sell privately.”


Fifield devotes several chapters to this new economic reality. But she also digs as deep as one can into the personal and family history of Kim Jong Un. She quotes from some familiar sources, such as the memoir of Japanese sushi chef Kenji Fujimoto and the official North Korean propaganda. But she also talks with some of Kim’s former classmates at the Swiss private school he attended. She interviews North Koreans living in South Korea. She tracks down Nam Ok, the sister of Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother that the North Korean state assassinated in Malaysia in 2017.


Through this reporting, Fifield scores a couple scoops. For instance, she determines that Kim Jong Nam was a CIA asset (though this information comes from a single anonymous source so perhaps should be taken with a grain of salt). She discovers that top foreign ministry officials probably didn’t know the condition of the detained American student, Otto Warmbier, until over a year into his confinement in North Korea, which suggests that the North Korean security services had kept the young man’s coma a secret out of fear for being punished for their incompetent handling of the case.


Fifield is an engaging writer and an enterprising reporter. For the most part, she avoids the usual stereotypes of North Korea. She even makes fun of those who make fun of the country and its young leader. “Even usually sober publications such as the New Yorker and the Economist couldn’t resist the urge to mock: the former depicted Kim Jong Un on the cover as a baby playing with toy missiles, while the latter had his idiosyncratic hair blowing up into a nuclear cloud,” she writes. And yet she too can’t resist indulging in similar evaluations. Kim Jong Un has a “cartoonish appearance.” The photos of the leader making his on-the-spot tours are “something out of the Onion.”


She also makes some unwarranted assumptions, for instance that Kim “couldn’t care less about the general population.” True, most dictators and even some elected leaders in democratic countries don’t care about the general population, but Kim’s economic changes, as Fifield herself notes, have not just benefited the elite. Perhaps the new leader is making some of the same calculations about the relationship between economic discontent and political action that other leaders make. She asserts that Pyongyang “had no intention of abiding by” the Agreed Framework of 1994, since it was pursuing uranium enrichment at that time. This also might be true, but that alternate route to a bomb could also have been an insurance policy in case the United States didn’t hold up its end of the bargain (which it didn’t).


But these are minor criticisms. The Great Successor is an invaluable glimpse into North Korea today. Readers might not learn much that’s new about Kim Jong Un. But they will learn something more important: how North Korea is changing under his rule.

Korean Quarterly, Fall 2019

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