There has been some exceptional journalism relating to North Korea in recent years. Elisabeth Rosenthal, writing in the New York Times, has provided benchmark reporting based on careful, fact-based analysis. Choe Sang-Hun, also of the New York Times, and Philippe Pons of Le Monde are today’s go-to journalistic sources. Some journalists, including Pons, have produced book-length analyses of North Korea. Good journalism can translate into a good book, but it is not an automatic correlation. And it’s not easy to get it right.
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One of the challenges in writing and reading about North Korea is to get the right balance between the hilarity and the horror. For there is a surreal oddity to the place beyond anywhere else on earth. At the same time, it’s the only country today where comparisons with the totalitarianisms of the last century can feel inadequate.
In her unsensational account Fifield (who is Beijing bureau chief for the Washington Post) navigates this course as well as anyone can. Kim Jong-un is not a sympathetic figure, but from his schooling in Switzerland and glimpses of his upbringing it is possible to see him as simply the most privileged captive of that system his grandfather set in motion — one which, at this stage, just wants to survive.
Fifield is clear-sighted too about the greatest of all of Kim’s achievements, his lightning transformation of a ramshackle nuclear programme into a fully functional factory for nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, while the rest of the world dozed. Far from being a symptom of insanity, given his friendlessness and the conventional military power of his foes, “it would be mad for Kim Jong-un not to pursue nuclear weapons”. All the sanctions imaginable will never persuade him to surrender his insurance policy until he is given reason to trust the US. And why would a man like Kim Jong-un trust a man like Trump?
Anna Fifield, who is the Beijing bureau chief for The Washington Post, recounts the fake news of Jang’s execution in her superb book on Kim Jong-un. In doing so, she highlights two features of her work that make it essential reading. The first is her qualities as a storyteller... The second, overriding, virtue of Fifield’s work is in its making... That Fifield has written such a sensitive (although not sympathetic), credible, and up-to-date account of Kim is testament to her skills as a reporter. The result is a model of investigative diligence and rigour, as she criss-crosses Asia, Europe, and the United States, interviewing old family members of Kim, escapees from North Korea, scholars, and even Vice crew members who accompanied the basketball player Denis Rodman on his trip to North Korea in 2013. The Great Successor, then, is a sharp reminder about the importance of considered, and well-funded, journalism, where the aim is to uncover facts, not generate clicks and outlandish speculation.
Anna Fifield’s The Great Successor is elegantly written and exhaustively researched. Fifield tracks down everyone outside North Korea who has met Kim, from school friends to servants to family members in hiding under false names. She has been reporting on the Korean peninsula since 2004, making a total of 14 trips to the world’s most reclusive state. The story Fifield tells, as befits the supreme ruler of a bizarrely unique country, is vivid to say the least.
Anna Fifield’s excellent account, based on years of reporting from Korea, dispenses with the overfamiliar anecdotes about this ghastly spoiled-brat-turned-dictator. The persona is grim: fandom of Eric Clapton, Dennis Rodman and a lot of French fries being pretty much the extent of it.
The secretive and paranoid nature of the North Korean regime has made it difficult to find reliable information about Kim. Anna Fifield, the Beijing bureau chief of The Washington Post, has written a remarkable study, based on extensive interviews with members of his family and wider network (many of whom, understandably, declined to be named). The information is still too tentative to call it a definitive biography, but it is an important and rigorous piece of journalism written with clarity and urgency.
Now, however, with The Great Successor we have got a book on the subject which is readable, as up-to-date as possible (North Korea changes fast), and fun to read. Anna Fifield is one of very few western journalists who have been reporting on North Korea — including as a correspondent for the Financial Times — for over a decade. She has visited the country a number of times and interviewed dozens, if not hundreds, of North Koreans across the world.