Few figures on the world stage are extra intriguing — or extra terrifying — than North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.

As supreme chief, his whims dictate the lives of his nation’s 25 million residents. He controls an arsenal of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles that threaten the lives of tens of millions extra all over the world.

He executed his uncle for “treachery.” He had his half-brother assassinated with a deadly nerve agent in the midst of a serious worldwide airport. He counts Dennis Rodman as considered one of his closest buddies. The president of the US is “in love” with him.

And he’s solely 35 years previous.


North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un arrives at the Dong Dang railway station in Dong Dang, Lang Son province, on February 26, 2019, to attend the second US-North Korea summit.

North Korea’s chief Kim Jong Un arrives on the Dong Dang railway station in Dong Dang, Lang Son province, on February 26, 2019, to attend the second US-North Korea summit.
Nhac Nguyen/AFP/Getty Photographs

Since coming to energy after the demise of his father in 2011, Kim has slowly begun bringing his nation out of its decades-long isolation. He’s allowed some free market financial enterprises to develop within the nation and held dramatic face-to-face conferences with the leaders of China, South Korea, and the US.

He even appeared at a press convention and took precise questions from overseas journalists on dwell TV — one thing that will have been fully unprecedented even a couple of years in the past.

But the person himself stays an enigma.

In a brand new e book titled The Nice Successor: The Divinely Good Future of Sensible Comrade Kim Jong Un, the Washington Publish’s Beijing bureau chief Anna Fifield supplies an intimate, inside have a look at the person who has captivated and menaced the world — his pampered childhood, his teen years learning overseas in Switzerland, his shut relationship along with his mom, and his violent rise to energy.

Fifield is a prize-winning reporter who arguably has lined North Korea higher than most journalists in latest reminiscence. And her e book is among the many most authoritative and complete accounts of Kim — each as a person and as a dictator — in years. It’s primarily why I referred to as her as much as get a greater sense of the person behind the missiles.

A frivolously edited transcript of my dialog with Fifield is beneath.

Alex Ward

So who’s Kim Jong Un? What makes the person tick?

Anna Fifield

His primary objective, the factor he wakes up occupied with daily, is the best way to keep in energy. All he cares about is holding on to his job and holding his household answerable for North Korea. Each determination he makes and every thing he does revolves round that prime precedence.

So, opposite to the stereotype of a loopy, nuclear-armed toddler, he’s very strategic and calculating in the way in which he approached his inheritance. He has set out from the beginning with a grasp plan to enhance North Korea’s nuclear program and the financial system.

To be clear, he’s specializing in the financial system not as a result of he cares concerning the North Korean individuals — he’s proven time and time once more that he doesn’t care about them. Quite, he wants a rising financial system to stay in command of his nation for many years to come back.

Alex Ward

Take me again to the start, to his childhood. Within the e book, you write that for Kim and his siblings, “life was pure luxurious.” What you describe — private cooks, tailored garments, gardens full of monkeys and bears in cages, each toy possible, from pinball machines to video video games to four-wheel autos — makes him sound like Richie Wealthy.

Anna Fifield

Yeah, completely. He was a spoiled brat. He was introduced as much as imagine that he was a demigod from the age of three or 4, in all probability so long as he can keep in mind. He was given a specifically modified automobile so he may drive it himself on the age of seven.

Then there was the time the household’s private sushi chef, who had principally been employed to be Kim’s pal, went fishing for sea bass with Kim and his brother. Each time the chef caught a fish, Kim would promptly demand to carry the fishing rod so he may declare he caught the fish himself. He received no matter he needed, however he additionally lived this extraordinarily irregular life inside North Korea the place he was fully minimize off from his nation and from his friends.

And take into account that there was famine raging in North Korea from the time he was about 10 years previous — and he most definitely didn’t even find out about it, since he would’ve had no entry to outdoors info.

Alex Ward

Kim spent a number of years residing and going to highschool in Switzerland within the 1990s, whereas he was in his early teenagers, underneath a false identification. How did that have have an effect on him? And why didn’t his time within the West appear to rub off on him?

Anna Fifield

There was this concept that Kim could be a unique type of chief as a result of he’d been uncovered to the West. He would have an thought of what it was prefer to dwell in a free world and a liberal democracy, so he couldn’t assist however be a reformer.

However I believe the other is the reality. What his time in Switzerland will need to have taught him is that if it wasn’t for the household fantasy and household dynasty, he’d be a no person. He could be one other strange, chubby immigrant child going to highschool and struggling along with his math homework. He wouldn’t, in different phrases, be the demigod he had been raised to be.

So his time in Switzerland in all probability solely served to persuade him much more that he ought to perpetuate the system and rise to the highest.


One of the buildings of the International School of Berne in Guemlingen near Bern, Switzerland, the private English-language school where Kim Jong Un went to school until 1998, pictured on December 19, 2011.

One of many buildings of the Worldwide Faculty of Berne in Gümlingen close to Bern, Switzerland, the personal English-language college the place Kim Jong Un went to highschool till 1998, pictured on December 19, 2011.
Harold Cunningham/Getty Photographs

Alex Ward

Had been there any moments from his time in Switzerland that crystallized that view of him for you?

Anna Fifield

When he would play on the close by basketball court docket daily after college, different individuals there thought he was from Thailand as a result of the Thai Embassy was shut by. Nobody knew how particular he actually was.

And his aunt and uncle — who had been his guardians and posed as his mother and father whereas he was in Switzerland — used to associate with little picnic-like chairs and sit there to cheer him on. It struck individuals there as very odd that he had these overly obsessive, overly encouraging guardians. It was very unusual, this setting that he grew up in. He grew up being the focus and was used to getting his personal means on a regular basis.

I’m type of reluctant to attract too many conclusions from his childhood, although. All of us will hopefully have matured from once we had been 12 years previous, and all of us had unhealthy days at that age.

Alex Ward

You write within the e book that he didn’t communicate Swiss German properly, and he couldn’t deal with even sitting in school, that he would kick and spit on his fellow college students. It looks as if he didn’t take failure or imperfection properly in any respect.

Anna Fifield

He definitely was pissed off at not having the ability to talk along with his classmates or not having the ability to simply function. I believe that’s why he was so withdrawn at college.

However he did make 4 buddies in Switzerland, and he appeared in a position to confide in them. He truly instructed considered one of them that his father was Kim Jong Il. After all, the man didn’t imagine him. Nonetheless, it reveals he was in a position to heat as much as individuals when he needed to.

What stands out most about his childhood to me, although, is that he wasn’t a psychopath. He was only a pissed off immigrant child. No person talked about him torturing kittens on the playground or something like that, and there’s no proof that he’s loopy.

Alex Ward

One factor that does appear to stem from his childhood for positive is that this perception that he’s some type of navy genius. You write that as a baby, he would put on navy garb and bark orders at individuals, even adults, and that that perspective continued when he went again to North Korea.

Anna Fifield

Proper. There actually was no different choice for him, although. His father was operating a military-first coverage, and the navy is extraordinarily vital in North Korea. The concept that he wanted to show his navy chops will need to have been clear very early on.

Additionally, you want to perceive that a part of the way in which the regime has stayed in energy for thus lengthy is by creating this fixed sense of concern and menace of the hostile United States coming to kill them. So he must painting himself as a navy genius who’s able to defending the nation.


One of many actually attention-grabbing issues that I stumbled upon throughout the course of researching this e book is that a lot of his life appears to have been a part of his mom’s design. His mom, Ko Yong Hui, was this very calculating character who needed each of her sons to go to Kim Il Sung Army Academy, which is principally the West Level of North Korea, to make sure they’d the mandatory credentials to steer sometime and to assert the fitting of succession in North Korea.

Alex Ward

That’s actually attention-grabbing. We all know a lot about his father, since he ran the nation for practically twenty years, however we nearly by no means hear something about his mom. What else can we find out about her and the way vital she was in Kim’s life?

Anna Fifield

Effectively, his curiosity within the navy and in basketball got here from her, so she was clearly essential. However his mom was a really formidable girl herself. Her affect was seen all over the place from the cartoons of her that abruptly began showing on TV to the way in which her sons had been promoted and moved up the ranks. It was in all probability far more the mom that determined who was the successor, slightly than the boy himself.

Alex Ward

Did he idolize her?

Anna Fifield

Effectively, we do have pictures of the 2 of them collectively, whereas there are only a few pictures of him along with his father and no pictures of him along with his grandfather, whom he by no means met. So he does appear to have been very near his mom.

She was very concerned in his upbringing, even when he was in Switzerland, and despite the fact that she had her public duties as Kim Jong Il’s consort to take care of. In response to Kim’s aunt, his mom’s sister, they had been very shut. She was a really hands-on mom regardless of these constraints.


This image of a young Kim Jong Un being doted on by his mother Ko Yong Hui is from an official North Korean government documentary about Ko titled “The Mother of the Great Military-First Korea.”

This picture of a younger Kim Jong Un being doted on by his mom Ko Yong Hui is from an official North Korean authorities documentary about Ko titled The Mom of the Nice Army-First Korea.
Korean Central Tv through YouTube

The determine of the mom in North Korean propaganda is essential. They name the nation the motherland, and typically you’ll hear the leaders — even Kim Il Sung, the nation’s founder and Kim Jong Un’s grandfather — known as the “Nice Motherly Chief” in Korean.

From very early on, Kim Jong Un’s mom was idolized within the nation. There was propaganda and flicks about her, and photographs launched exhibiting her with Kim Il Sung.

So it was essential for Kim Jong Un’s eventual rise to energy to have this mom determine concerned in his life from the beginning and to point out her as a loyal servant of the regime.

Alex Ward

So how does Kim go from being a pissed off immigrant child and cherished son to killing off relations like his uncle and half-brother?

Anna Fifield

He didn’t have a lot affection for the individuals he had killed off. His uncle, Jang Tune Thaek, had all the time been aligned along with his half-brother’s line of the household, and Jang remained near the half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, even after the latter went into self-imposed exile.

The uncle performed an important position throughout the transition interval by offering stability and recommendation whereas Kim was settling in — but it surely didn’t take a lot for Kim Jong Un to do away with him.

The few anecdotes I heard had been about how Jang continued to deal with Kim like a baby even after he took energy, like when Jang despatched away the Coca-Cola Kim ordered when he hosted Dennis Rodman for dinner after a basketball recreation. Jang additionally spoke at size on the dinner, and individuals who had been there stated Kim appeared to roll his eyes as if to say, “Oh, that previous windbag once more,” when his uncle was talking.

However there’s clearly nonetheless a giant step to go from considering, “Ugh, that man,” to having him taken out and shot. From Kim’s perspective, although, it was no loss to him to do away with Jang as a result of in doing so, he removed a rival. It additionally despatched out this very highly effective deterrent message to anyone else within the regime who could be occupied with rising their very own energy base: I’ve no compunction of eliminating anyone, even my very own relative.

And in relation to the assassination of his half-brother, there’s no proof that Kim Jong Nam and Kim Jong Un ever met one another. So for Kim the chief, Kim the sibling was simply one other individual, simply one other rival that may very well be disposed of.

Alex Ward

Many analysts have identified that Kim has gone out of his strategy to appear like his grandfather, from his haircut to the type of swimsuit he wears and even right down to his large stomach. However is he actually making an attempt to emulate his grandfather in relation to his habits and the way he’s operating the nation? Or is he simply making an attempt to appear like him whereas charting his personal path ahead?

Anna Fifield

He’s very a lot emulating his grandfather. To today, even some defectors I spoke to in South Korea and China nonetheless have a variety of admiration for Kim Il Sung as a result of they affiliate him with the nice instances in North Korea — when it had allies on this planet and when the North Korean financial system was higher than the South Korean financial system (up till about 1975). And, in fact, North Koreans nonetheless have a variety of affection for him.


Kim Il Sung, the founder of North Korea and Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, talks to a clerk at State Department Store No. 2 in April 1962.

Kim Il Sung, the founding father of North Korea and Kim Jong Un’s grandfather, talks to a clerk at State Division Retailer No. 2 in April 1962.
AP Picture

Kim Jong Un has undoubtedly tried to piggyback on that by his bodily look. However additionally they appear to be alike personality-wise, or not less than a lot nearer than Kim Jong Un’s character is to his father’s.

Each Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Un appear to be far more gregarious and outgoing characters. They each get pleasure from being out and speaking to individuals. Kim Jong Il, in the meantime, was simply an oddball: He was very introspective and didn’t get pleasure from socializing or interacting with outsiders. He solely spoke in public as soon as throughout 17 years in energy, and he uttered one single sentence.

Whereas Kim Jong Un, he’s on the market on a regular basis speaking to individuals and giving speeches and stuff like that. So I believe he has far more of the charisma that his grandfather had.

Alex Ward

One of the fascinating belongings you speak about in your e book is Kim’s relationship along with his spouse, Ri Sol Ju. I believe most Individuals in all probability don’t even understand Kim received married in 2009 — or that he has youngsters, for that matter. Are you able to inform me extra about his spouse and the position she performs in his life?

Anna Fifield

She appears to be a really moderating affect on him. In North Korea, there’s by no means been a proper first girl, so this in itself was actually revolutionary to abruptly have this younger, glamorous, well-dressed girl at Kim’s facet. It did rather a lot to point out him as a younger, fashionable millennial chief.

She would have been immediately recognizable to each single North Korean as a result of she was the lead singer of this extraordinarily well-known singing group. She was all the time on North Korean TV and heart stage, so they might have identified precisely who she was when she got here out.

And very like Kate Middleton in the UK, when she got here out, she was in a position to soften her husband’s picture a bit, make him appear a bit extra approachable, and actually proved a public relations present.


Kim Jong Un and his wife, Ri Sol Ju, visiting the Mangyongdae Revolutionary School in Pyongyang to plant trees with its students in March 2017.

Kim Jong Un and his spouse, Ri Sol Ju, visiting the Mangyongdae Revolutionary Faculty in Pyongyang to plant bushes with its college students in March 2017.
Korean Central Information Company through KNS/AFP/Getty Photographs

One story I heard was that very early on in Kim’s reign, the couple went to the grand opening of one of many amusement parks that Kim had ordered to be developed within the nation as a part of his technique to enchantment to his technology — the technology who may doubtlessly assist him for 30 or 40 years.

All these overseas diplomats had been invited to the opening of the park — the cameras had been there, it was a very large present. A British diplomat even went on one of many rides and sat a row in entrance of Kim. At one level throughout the trip, there was some type of malfunction and it stopped transferring. In response to individuals who had been there, Kim began to boil and was clearly getting very indignant that every thing had not gone easily throughout this occasion.

And apparently his spouse went over to him, spoke quietly to him, and simply calmed him down. Every little thing was settled, they usually all moved on. So far as we all know, all people survived the occasion.

Alex Ward

Between his mom, his spouse, and his sister Kim Yo Jong, who we haven’t talked about, it looks as if Kim actually trusts girls to assist him rule. That’s not a traditional trait amongst strongmen.

Anna Fifield

You’re proper, it’s not a traditional trait. Nevertheless, his father additionally relied rather a lot on his personal sister, so the thought of the supporting-sister position just isn’t precisely new in North Korea.

However Kim Jong Un’s sister does appear to be actually good at her job as an adviser, diplomat, and normal staffer. It additionally helps that she’s Kim’s blood — a pure, 100 p.c blood relative. Meaning she may be trusted like only a few different individuals. Greater than nearly anyone else, she has a vested curiosity in perpetuating the system she advantages from.

The hanging factor is that none of those girls may ever be the chief in their very own proper. They’ve their position — whether or not it’s the glamorous spouse or the organizing sister — supporting Kim Jong Un and making him look good and making certain nothing untoward occurs. However they’ll by no means lead themselves.


President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un sign documents as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (R) and the North Korean leader’s sister Kim Yo Jong (L) look on at a signing ceremony during their historic US-North Korea summit, at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa

President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un signal paperwork as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (R) and Kim’s sister and adviser Kim Yo Jong (L) look on at a signing ceremony throughout their historic US-North Korea summit, on the Capella Resort on Sentosa Island in Singapore on June 12, 2018.
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Photographs

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