Continuing the family tradition of repression

Books | North Korean leader Kim Jong Un follows in the footsteps of his father and grandfather
by Anna Fifield
Posted 7/11/20, 12:42 pm

When Kim Jong Un took over as North Korea’s leader in 2011, no one knew what to make of the Swiss-educated 27-year-old who loved the NBA. Would the younger Kim lead reforms in the Hermit Kingdom?

Today it’s clear the answer is no. Despite loosening government controls of private markets, Kim is as ruthless as his father and grandfather, brutally killing political opponents—including family members—and developing a nuclear program while his people struggle to eat. There’s still an aura of mystery surrounding Kim: In April, after he went missing from public view for three weeks, the international community couldn’t figure out if the reclusive leader was dead or gravely ill after heart surgery or on vacation. On May 1, he attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony at a fertilizer plant alive and well.

In this excerpt of The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, courtesy of PublicAffairs, author Anna Fifield describes the initial transition in leadership from Kim Jung Il to Kim Jung Un and how the latter quickly cemented his leadership by instilling fear in the people, creating a cult of personality, and allowing enough economic freedom to let people feel their standard of living was improving.

The Great Successor made WORLD’s short list for 2019 Book of the Year in the Understanding the World category. —Angela Lu Fulton

Chapter 5: A third Kim at the helm

“The entire army should place absolute trust in and follow Kim Jong Un and become human rifles and bombs to defend him unto death.” Rodong Sinmun, January 1, 2012

The young man had good reason to be solemn. His father had died. Kim Jong Un found himself the leader of the totalitarian state that his family had more or less invented. He was now entering the most important year of his life, the year that would show whether he was capable of keeping his family’s grip on the country or whether the brutal, anachronistic system would finally tear itself apart.

He had to assert his authority over men who’d been working for the state for longer than he’d been alive and keep a lid on a population that had been cut off from the outside world for decades. And he had to repel an international community that was expecting—and, in many cases, hoping—that he would fail.

The first order of business was to turn the personality cult up to full blast.

On December 17, 2011, Kim Jong Il had suffered a massive heart attack, the result of “great mental and physical strain,” while traveling by train to give on-the-spot guidance in the north of the country, the veteran newsreader Ri Chun Hee announced in a quivering voice during a special midday bulletin on state television two days later.

She had tearfully announced Kim Il Sung’s death in 1994. Then, as now, she assured her audience that North Koreans had no need for concern. They had Kim Jong Un, the “Great Successor to the revolutionary cause,” to lead them.

The twenty-seven-year-old was now “leader of the party, military, and the people,” and the young scion would “brilliantly succeed and complete” the revolutionary creed established by his grandfather almost seven decades before, the broadcast continued.

The regime was attempting the unprecedented: a transition to a third generation of supposedly socialist, highly totalitarian, and definitely untested power.

The announcement ricocheted around the world. North Korea was now entering a highly unpredictable new phase. The regime was attempting the unprecedented: a transition to a third generation of supposedly socialist, highly totalitarian, and definitely untested power.

South Korea put its military on high alert. Japan activated an emergency response team. The White House was on tenterhooks and was “in close touch” with both of its allies on North Korea’s doorstep.

In North Korea, the propaganda had been written. The senior officials had been put in their places. All the steps necessary to ensure Kim Jong Un could succeed his father had been taken, even if they’d been taken hurriedly.

Now Kim Jong Un had to step up and play his role.

The first, and most important, part was that of Bereft Inheritor. Kim Jong Un made sure the North Korean people saw him as the natural continuation of a line that had ruled the nation for the previous six decades. Like his father seventeen years earlier, he was now modeling the kind of ashen-faced sorrow he expected to see throughout the population.

Kim Jong Un went to the Kumsusan Memorial Palace, a thirty-five-thousand-square-meter, five-story mausoleum in the northeast of Pyongyang, where his grandfather had lain in state for the past seventeen years.

It was originally built as Kim Il Sung’s official residence but was converted into a permanent memorial at a cost rumored to have hit $900 million, money spent when the famine was at its peak. Still, the regime’s priority was not feeding its starving people but creating a behemothic tribute to the man who’d presided over the mismanagement that contributed to the deaths.

Kim Il Sung’s embalmed body had lain in a glass case there, a menacing presence even in death. Every day, untold numbers of North Koreans in their Sunday best rolled into the massive building on long travellators more usually associated with airports. A steady stream of foreign visitors went in too, for taking outsiders to pay homage to the dead despot was important to maintain the lie that the Great Leader was internationally revered.

On my trips along the travellators into the mausoleum, I always found it fascinating to look at the North Koreans moving in the opposite direction. As they rolled along past me, I wondered what they made of this whole place. Maybe they were disgusted at the resources devoted to a corpse, or maybe they were genuinely moved by the sight of a man they’d been told was a demigod. Many were crying. For others, it was at least an opportunity to put on their best clothes and have a day away from the drudgery of ordinary life.

Now, Kim Jong Il was lying in state there too.

When they went into the mausoleum, Kim Jong Un and his sister, Kim Yo Jong, led the black-clad senior officials who went to pay their respects before their father’s body. Both were wiping away tears.

Their father was lying on a platform, dressed in his zip-up jacket, his head resting on a round pillow and his body covered with a red sheet. Around the bier were the red begonias grown to bloom on his birthday, a flower named Kimjongilia. In North Korea, even Mother Nature was forced to bend to serve the myth of the glory of the Kims.

Then, eleven days after Kim Jong Il’s death, came the public farewell.

In North Korea, even Mother Nature was forced to bend to serve the myth of the glory of the Kims.

Kim Jong Un sent his father on his last journey, the long black funeral cortege rolling through the white streets to complete a twenty-five-mile circuit through Pyongyang. The snow was falling thick and fast in a show of “heaven’s grief,” as a North Korean newsreader later described it.

The procession contained two American-made Lincoln Continentals: one carrying Kim Jong Il’s portrait, wider and longer than the car itself, and another bearing his casket, wrapped in the flag of the Workers’ Party, the traditional Communist hammer and sickle joined by a calligraphy brush to represent scholarship.

As the hearse rolled slowly through Kim Il Sung Square, eight men walked alongside. At the front right of the car was Kim Jong Un, clutching the side mirror as if to steady himself in his grief or perhaps as if to hold on to his beloved father as long as he could. His expression was as dark as his coat. But none of Kim Jong Il’s other sons were visible. There was no sign of Kim Jong Un’s older half brother, Kim Jong Nam, or his full brother, Kim Jong Chol.

Instead, the group of eight included Jang Song Thaek, Kim Jong Un’s uncle, a gregarious character who had an important role managing the North’s economic relationship with China. Jang was part of the inner circle thanks to his marriage to Kim Jong Il’s sister, Kim Kyong Hui. Both of them had been promoted to the politburo the previous year, at the same conference where Kim Jong Un was named heir apparent.

The streets were lined with mourners who were wailing and beating their chests, convulsing in tears and falling to the ground in a way that could look extremely melodramatic to outsiders. The theatrics were Korean soap opera crossed with Latin American telenovela with a heavy dollop of bizarre.

North Koreans don’t need to be told to mourn their leaders in this way. They know what is expected. Certainly, you would not want to be the North Korean caught on camera crying less passionately than the people around you. But some of it was no doubt genuine. Almost all North Koreans have grown up knowing nothing else, worshipping the Kims like gods. Some are true believers.

In the days after Kim Jong Il’s death, the state media held up the intense public mourning as a sign of how deeply the people loved their leader. “The wailing of people greeting and sending off the hearse in tears seemed to shake the land,” the official news agency reported.

This outpouring of grief was repeated across the country. Soldiers, schoolchildren, government officials, everyone gathered at monuments around the country to pay their respects—complete with unrestrained sobs, rending of black clothes, and full prostrations on the snow-covered ground—to Kim Jong Il. Kim Jong Un ordered warm drinks and extra medical care for the mourners out on the frozen streets, the state media said.

After the funeral, Kim Jong Un watched over a military parade in front of the Kumsusan Memorial Palace, where the Korean People’s Army pledged its allegiance to the young new leader. They vowed to act as rifles and bombs to protect him and to wipe out North Korea’s enemies if they dared “intrude into the inviolable sky, land and seas of the country even by 0.001 mm.”

Kim Jong Il had declared a three-year mourning period after the death of his father, during which time he consolidated his grip on the regime and tried to hang on through the famine.

But the Great Successor didn’t have any downtime. The man now known as the “Beloved and Respected” Comrade Kim Jong Un got busy “turning sorrow into strength,” as newsreader Ri put it. From that moment on, he devoted all his time and energy to staying in power. For that, he needed to establish his own power base, one that owed its loyalty directly to him, not to his father. …

Kim Jong Il had declared a three-year mourning period after the death of his father, during which time he consolidated his grip on the regime and tried to hang on through the famine.

HE MAY HAVE BEEN A GIFT for comedians and cartoonists, but it was not through luck, chance, or accident that Kim Jong Un has defied the odds to remain in control of his regime.

Everything that he has done since his first days in power has been carefully calculated to help him achieve his only goal: to remain, as his image makers put it, the Ever-Victorious, Iron-Willed Commander of North Korea.

In the outside world, there was a tendency to diminish Kim Jong Un’s power, to say that he was just a figurehead and that the old guard was really running the show.

It did seem to be true that the Great Successor got some guidance in his early months and years. His aunt, Kim Kyong Hui, was his most important advisor. She had been very close to her brother, Kim Jong Il, and was a crucial pillar in his regime. She took the lead in ensuring her nephew got the education and support he needed as he took over the leadership. She also made sure the Kim family coffers were safe.

Her husband, pallbearer Jang Song Thaek, became the “Control Tower,” looking after day-to-day operations of the regime. It was Jang who decided what messages got to Kim Jong Un and with what priority, putting his own spin on them as he delivered them.

A third official made up the triumvirate of close advisors: Choe Ryong Hae, who at that time was the director of the General Political Bureau, the agency within the Korean People’s Army that administers political education within the military. This was a crucial role that gave him authority in both the military and the Workers’ Party.

These three supported and guided the young leader as he started his new role, but North Korea’s regime operates on a system based on a Supreme Leader. Kim Jong Un wielded absolute power. This would be illustrated very soon through the fates of these three closest advisors.

As he cemented his hold on the leadership and the regime, Kim Jong Un very deliberately retreated inward, forgoing the kinds of pilgrimages to Moscow and Beijing that his father and grandfather had made. He tried to make sure that no one else left the country either. He immediately set about sealing the borders to make sure that there was no exodus of people or sense that his grip on the state was anything less than iron clad. He clamped down on the flow of information, employing advanced technology to catch those who dared watch a South Korean drama or listen to a Chinese pop song.

He injected a new dose of terror into society, ensuring everyone lived in constant fear. The general populace came under new levels of repression, and elites in the regime who accumulated too much power risked being exiled to the far corners of the state—or worse.

He injected a new dose of terror into society, ensuring everyone lived in constant fear.

Kim needed a cohort of supporters around him who also had a vested interest in his success, so he went about figuring out who to keep and who to eliminate. He got rid of potential rivals to the leadership, dispatching his uncle and eventually his half brother in brutal fashion to make it clear that his ambition knew no boundaries.

He allowed more economic freedom—distinctly capitalist markets became central to most people’s lives—as a way to give the population a sense that their standard of living was improving.

That freed him up to pour all the regime’s resources into developing the missile and nuclear weapons programs, pressing ahead with breathtaking speed and accomplishment to demonstrate a credible threat to the Kim regime’s mortal enemy, the United States of America.

Even the ridiculous appearance was by design.

While other dictators have tried to hide the fact that they’re aging and might therefore be mortal—just look at the way Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi dyed their hair—Kim Jong Un did the opposite. The young autocrat made himself the reincarnation of his grandfather. His hairstyle was straight out of the 1940s Soviet Union, and he walked with a limp. He had turned his voice into a low rumble reminiscent of his grandfather’s, overlaid with a two-packs-a-day rasp. And most noticeable of all, he gained more and more weight between every public appearance.

In the summer, he wore the white, short-sleeved, comrade-style shirts that his grandfather sported. In the winter, he had the same huge fur hats. He even wore old-fashioned, square glasses. The whole look was vintage Kim Il Sung to remind North Koreans of the good old days.

The mimicry worked.

The first time he saw Kim Jong Un, with his substantial girth enveloped in a Mao suit and his unusual short-back-and-sides hairstyle, the high schooler from Hyesan immediately thought of his history lessons and the family reminiscences about the good times the country enjoyed under Kim Il Sung. “I thought about Kim Il Sung’s time and time when North Koreans’ lives were better, and I think a lot of other North Koreans thought that way too,” Hyon told me.

“Just like South Koreans have fond memories for Park Chung-hee, North Koreans have fond memories of Kim Il Sung because during his reign, North Koreans lived better than South Koreans,” he explained.

But Kim Jong Un didn’t stop at appearances. Kim Il Sung had been a huge personality, and he had parlayed that into a charismatic regime that revolved around him alone. Kim Jong Il did not have this kind of demeanor. He was notoriously reclusive and standoffish and quite obviously disliked human contact.

Kim Jong Un seemed to be very much his grandfather’s grandson, someone who seemed to enjoy North Korea’s version of retail politics, of getting out and meeting his constituents. He didn’t need their votes—the leader of North Korea is always elected to the Supreme People’s Assembly, with 100 percent turnout and 100 percent in favor—but he did want enthusiasm, and so photographs of him being adored and being adoring were shared to perpetuate the myth.

Kim Jong Un seemed to be very much his grandfather’s grandson, someone who seemed to enjoy North Korea’s version of retail politics, of getting out and meeting his constituents.

In newspapers and on television screens, Kim Jong Un made sure to show himself as a man of the people. Everywhere he went—schools, orphanages, hospitals—he was tactile, smiling broadly and hugging everyone, from children to the elderly. Giving on-the-spot guidance at a farm, he petted a baby goat on the head.

The state media exploded with reports of people around the country supposedly randomly interviewed about their thoughts about their new leader. Everywhere from foodstuff factories to medicine manufacturing plants, North Koreans were quoted pledging their allegiance to the new leader, described as the “eternally immovable mental mainstay of the Korean people.”

One woman couldn’t contain her admiration: “I’m convinced he is the master of our destiny,” she said on state television. “As long as he is with us, we will not fear anything.”

The state media was glowing in its appraisal of Kim’s debut, and many people were initially encouraged. Families around the country were given unfathomably decadent rations—like fish and meat, a rarity—to mark the change in leadership. They were gifts from the Great Successor to the people. Optimism grew.

Min-ah was only a couple of years younger than the new leader, and her life was relatively good back then in 2012. She was relatively well-off by provincial North Korean standards. She lived in Hoeryong, a bustling trading post on the North Korean border with China, and her husband was a truck driver, a good job because it allowed him to run a lucrative smuggling business on the side. They had a house with a small yard and, soon, a young baby. Once their daughter started kindergarten, they had enough money to bribe the teachers to treat her well. They were part of the new North Korean middle class.

Still, she hoped that the ascent of Kim Jong Un, a millennial like her, would herald a new era for North Korea—an era of better relations with China, which tolerated but didn’t exactly embrace North Korea, and with the outside world. An era of economic prosperity, where North Koreans might begin to enjoy some of the riches and freedoms they saw in the South Korean dramas they secretly watched late at night.

But nothing improved. In fact, in some ways, life got worse. The border was fortified, making it more difficult for people to smuggle goods across the river. As a result, prices went up. The cost of laundry powder doubled and then tripled.

Disappointment began to set in. Min-ah’s husband and closest friends began joking about their new demigod. If Kim Jong Un can be leader, then I can be the leader too, they laughed. In the police state of North Korea, such talk was seditious, and if someone betrayed their words to the authorities, the consequences would be severe: almost certain detention in a political prison camp.

“Everybody knew that Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un were both liars. We knew that everything we heard on the news was lies, but it’s impossible to say anything because you’re under such tight surveillance,” Min-ah told me a few years after she and her husband and their two young daughters escaped to South Korea. “If someone is drunk and says Kim Jong Un is a son of a bitch, you’ll never see them again.”

Kim Jong Un had successfully taken over, but he had not yet proven that he knew how to make a success of the decrepit kleptocracy that was his inheritance.

This article has been adapted from The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un by Anna Fifield. Copyright © 2019. Available from PublicAffairs, an imprint of Perseus Books, LLC, a subsidiary of Hachette Book Group Inc. Soon to be available in paperback.

Anna Fifield

Anna is the Beijing bureau chief for The Washington Post.

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