By Anna Fifield
Formats and Prices
This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around June 11, 2019. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.
Since his birth in 1984, Kim Jong Un has been swaddled in myth and propaganda, from the plainly silly — he could supposedly drive a car at the age of three — to the grimly bloody stories of family members who perished at his command.
Explore book giveaways, sneak peeks, deals, and more.
Why, I can smile, and murder whiles I smile,
And cry “Content” to that which grieves my heart,
And wet my cheeks with artificial tears,
And frame my face to all occasions…
I can add colors to the chameleon,
Change shapes with Proteus for advantages,
And set the murderous Machiavel to school.
Can I do this, and cannot get a crown?
—Richard, in Henry VI, Part 3, Act III, Scene II
MANY OF THE ESCAPEES FROM NORTH KOREA WHO APPEAR IN this book asked me not to use their real names. They are afraid that doing so would endanger family members still in North Korea. In those cases, I used pseudonyms or no names at all.
I have used North Korean romanization and style for North Korean places and names. So Kim Jong Un not Kim Jeong-un, Ri not Lee, Paektu not Baekdu, Rodong not Nodong, and Sinmun not Shinmun.
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.
I ended up next to Andersen in business class (yes, the Communist state airline has classes) because a passenger wanted my economy seat so he could sit next to his friend. 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—some might call them underwear—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.
Moments later, an even bigger wrestler, Bob Sapp, emerged in a white sequin-and-feather cape. He was dressed for Mardi Gras, not the Hermit Kingdom.
“Kill ’em!” Andersen yelled to Sapp as the two Americans charged at two much smaller Japanese wrestlers.
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.
In the case of Kim Jong Un, too, the initial signs were positive, thought John Delury, an expert on China at Yonsei University in Seoul. He was looking for signs that the young leader would bring reforms and prosperity to North Korea, just as Deng Xiaoping did to China in 1978.
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—sometime 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.
Victor Cha, who served as a top negotiator with North Korea in the George W. Bush administration, boldly predicted in the pages of the New York Times that the regime would collapse within months, if not weeks.
Cha was maybe the most unequivocal in his predictions, but he was hardly alone. Most North Korea watchers thought the end was near. There was widespread skepticism that Kim Jong Un was up to the task.
I, too, was doubtful. I couldn’t imagine North Korea under a third generation of Kim family leadership. I had been following North Korea, up close and from afar, for years. In 2004, the Financial Times newspaper posted me to Seoul to cover both Koreas. It was the start of an enduring obsession.
Over the next four years, I traveled to North Korea ten times, including five reporting trips to Pyongyang. I toured the monuments to the Kims and interviewed government officials, business managers, and university professors—all in the company of my ever-present regime minders. They were there to make sure I didn’t see anything that called into question the carefully arranged tableau before me.
All the time, I was looking for glimmers of truth. Despite the regime’s best efforts, it was easy to see that the country was broken, that nothing was as it appeared. The economy was barely functioning. The fear in the eyes of the people was inescapable. The applause I heard for Kim Jong Il, when I stood just fifty yards from him at a Pyongyang stadium in 2005, seemed canned.
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. They would look down and keep walking. 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. Adolf Hitler. Joseph Stalin. Pol Pot. Idi Amin. Saddam Hussein. Muammar Gaddafi. Ferdinand Marcos. Mobutu Sese-Sekou. Manuel Noriega. Some were ideologues, some kleptocrats. Many were both.
There were even cases of family dictatorships. In Haiti, “Papa Doc” Duvalier passed power to his son, “Baby Doc,” and Syrian president Hafez al-Assad handed the leadership to his son Bashar. Cuba’s Fidel Castro arranged for his brother Raul to take over.
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 midtown 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: North Koreans 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, of people 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 also 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 their 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 to North Korea and 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.
“The Majestic Comrade Kim Jong Un, descended from heaven and conceived by Mt. Paektu.”
—Rodong Sinmun, December 20, 2011
WONSAN IS A PARADISE ON EARTH. OR AT LEAST A PARADISE IN North Korea.
In a country of jagged mountains and rocky soil, of Siberian freezes and flash floods, the east coast area of Wonsan is one of the few spots of natural beauty. It has white sandy beaches and a sheltered harbor dotted with little islands. Wonsan is where North Korea’s 0.1 percent spend their summers. It’s their Martha’s Vineyard, their Monte Carlo.
They swim in the sea or relax in the pools at their beachfront villas. They suck the delectable meat from fur-covered claws of the prized local hairy crab and scoop the rich roe from inside it. They repair to nearby Lake Sijung, where the 107-degree mud pool is said to relieve fatigue and erase wrinkles, making a tired old cadre feel instantly refreshed.
This area is especially beloved by the most elite of the elites: the Kim family, which has controlled North Korea for more than seven decades.
It was here that a young anti-imperialist fighter with the nom de guerre of Kim Il Sung landed when he returned home to Korea in 1945, after Japan had been defeated in World War II and ejected from the peninsula.
It was here that Kim Jong Il, just four years old when the war ended, hid out while his father maneuvered to become the leader of the newly created North Korea. This half of the peninsula would be backed by communist Soviet Union and China, while the southern half would be supported by the democratic United States.
And it was here that a little boy called Kim Jong Un spent the long, lazy summers of his childhood, frolicking on the beaches and zooming over the waves on a banana boat.
When he was born on January 8, 1984—a year forever associated in the outside world with oppression and dystopia, thanks to the novelist George Orwell—the little boy’s grandfather had ruled the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea for thirty-six years. He was the Great Leader, the Sun of the Nation, and Ever-Victorious Brilliant Commander Kim Il Sung.
The little boy’s father, an odd little man who was obsessed with films and who was about to turn forty-two, had been designated heir to the regime, ready to give it the dubious honor of becoming the world’s first Communist dynasty. He was preparing to become the Dear Leader, the Glorious General Who Descended from Heaven, and the Guiding Star of the Twenty-First Century.
They both loved to spend time in Wonsan. And so, too, did the little boy who would one day follow in their footsteps.
As he was growing up, he would come east from Pyongyang or very far east from his school in Switzerland to spend his summers here. Much later, when he wanted to show off this funfair made for one, he would bring an idiosyncratic American basketballer here for boating and partying—lots of partying. Even later still, an unconventional American real estate developer turned president would praise Wonsan’s “great beaches” and describe it as an ideal place to build condos.
The Kim regime shared Wonsan’s natural beauty with selected outsiders to propagate the myth that North Korea was a “socialist paradise.” The city itself wasn’t particularly attractive. Wonsan was entirely destroyed in the sustained American bombing campaign of the Korean War and had been rebuilt in drab Soviet style. Red signs exhorting “Long Live Great Leader Comrade Kim Il Sung” and billboards advertising totalitarianism to a population that had no choice but to buy it sat atop the gray concrete buildings in the city center.
The pristine white beach at Songdowon was always the main attraction. Throughout the 1980s, when Kim Jong Un began playing on the beach, Wonsan was a focal point for communist get-togethers. A Boy Scout camp there in 1985 attracted children from the Soviet Union and East Germany, and the state media published photos of happy children flocking from across the world to spend their summers in Wonsan.1
The reality—even then in the 1980s, when the Soviet Union still existed and still propped up its Asian client state—was very different.
When Lee U Hong, an agricultural engineer who lived in Japan but was ethnically Korean, arrived in Wonsan to teach at the agricultural college in 1983, he watched as a class of young women learned about a famous tree called the golden pine. Lee thought they were visiting junior high school students. They turned out to be college students—but because they were so malnourished, they looked years younger.2
The following year, when he went to the beach to look for Wonsan’s famed sweetbriar flower, he couldn’t find any. A local told him that North Korean kids were so hungry that they picked the flowers so they could eat their seeds.
Lee saw none of the advanced agricultural methods or the mechanized farms that the government and its representatives liked to crow about. Instead, he saw thousands of people harvesting rice and corn by hand.3
But the Kim regime had a myth to perpetuate. When floods caused devastation in South Korea in 1984, the North sent food aid on ships that departed from the port in Wonsan, which sits just 80 miles north of the Demilitarized Zone, the 2.5-mile-wide no-man’s land that has divided the peninsula since the end of the Korean War in 1953.
Eight months after Kim Jong Un was born, even as ordinary North Koreans were suffering from severe food shortages, sacks marked “Relief Goods for South Korean Flood Victims” and bearing the symbol of the North Korean Red Cross were being shipped from Wonsan.
“As it was the first happy event in our 40 year history of separation, the wharf was full of passion,” the Rodong Sinmun, the mouthpiece of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea, reported in 1984. “The wide wharf echoed with cheerful farewells… The whole port was full of love for family.”
Of course, Kim Jong Un would know none of this. He was living a blissful, cloistered life in one of the family’s compounds in Pyongyang or at the beachfront residence in Wonsan, where the house was so huge that the Kim children rode a battery-powered golf cart to get around.4
In the 1990s, while North Korean children were eating seeds for nourishment, Kim Jong Un was enjoying sushi and watching action movies. He was developing a passion for basketball and was flying off to Paris to visit Euro Disney.
He lived behind the curtain of the world’s most secretive regime until 2009, when he reached the age of twenty-five. Then, when he was formally introduced to the North Korean elite as his father’s successor, his first commemorative photo was taken in Wonsan. It was broadcast on North Korean television only once or twice and is very grainy, but it shows Kim Jong Un, dressed in a black Mao suit, standing under a tree with his father, his brother and sister, and two other men.
Wonsan remained an extremely important place to Kim Jong Un. After he became leader, perhaps to re-create the carefree fun of his youth, he sponsored the creation of a huge amusement park in Wonsan. The city is now home to an aquarium with a tunnel through the tanks, a funfair-style mirror house, and the Songdowon Water Park, a sprawling complex with both indoor and outdoor pools. There is a twirling waterslide that empties into a series of round pools. It is a socialist paradise recast for a theme park era.
Kim Jong Un inspected the development not long after he became “Beloved and Respected Supreme Leader” at the end of 2011. In a white summer shirt with a red pin placed over his heart that featured the faces of his father and grandfather, he leaned over the waterslides and peered along them. He smiled broadly, declaring himself “very pleased” that North Korea had been able to build a waterpark all by itself.
From the high diving boards, kids could see the colorful umbrellas on the beach and the pedal boats in the bay. Summer in Wonsan brought “the unusual sight of students standing on the sandy beach with beautifully colored tubes slung over their shoulders, and laughing grandparents, hand-in-hand with grandsons and granddaughters jumping from foot to foot as they look out at the sea,” state media reported.
These facilities are for the proletariat. The royals have their own.
The Kim family’s huge compound includes luxurious beachfront residences for the family members, as well as spacious guesthouses for visitors, situated far enough apart from each other and shielded by trees to ensure privacy. Even among the elite, discretion is key. There’s a large indoor swimming pool at the compound and pools set into barges that float offshore, allowing the Kims to swim in the water without the perils of the open sea. A covered dock houses the Kim family yachts and more than a dozen Jet Skis. There’s a basketball court and a helipad. Not far away is a new airstrip so Kim Jong Un can fly himself into the resort on his personal plane.
- On Sale
- Jun 11, 2019
- Page Count
- 336 pages