- - Wednesday, July 17, 2019


By Anna Fifield

Public Affairs, $28, 309 pages

Kim Jong-un, the third-generation hereditary ruler of North Korea, by all measures presides over perhaps the most wretched country in the world.

Unable to provide even subsistence rations of food to its 25 million residents, Mr. Kim cares little that the bulk of its people live on the brink of starvation. The slightest murmur of dissent lands critics in prisons whose brutality matches than of Nazi concentration camps.

Rather than devote North Korea’s limited resources to aid his suffering people, Mr. Kim risks his country’s destruction by developing nuclear weapons capable of reaching the United States.

Amid the squalor, Mr. Kim lives a life that surpasses luxury, in a series of multi-million dollar estates, gorging on expensive foods imported from abroad, and swilling liquors priced at a thousand dollars per bottle. Unsurprisingly, the 5-foot-8 tyrant crushes the scales at 300 pounds.

Mr. Kim’s sordid story is expertly detailed by veteran Asian correspondent Anna Fifield, formerly with the Financial Times, and now Beijing bureau chief of The Washington Post. She supplements her eyes-on reporting with accounts from scores of interviews of persons who escaped Mr. Kim’s purgatory. She also benefited from long interviews with a man named Kenji Fujimoto, who was tasked with caring for the future dictator during his childhood.

The Kim family’s sordid saga began in 1945, when the Soviet Union installed his grandfather, who bore the nom de guerre Kim Il-sung, as ruler of North Korea, created in a post-war settlement between the USSR and the United States.

The founding tyrant, who ruled for 36 years, started a war that destroyed  much of his country. The successor son, Kim Jong-il, inherited such self-bestowed titles as Dear Leader; The Glorious General Who Descended From Heaven; and The Guiding Star of the Twenty-first Century.

Born in 1984, Kim Jong-un by birth was third-in-line to inherit leadership. But his would-be competitors fell into dispute, and he inherited the dynasty in 2011.

The new ruler had scant training in governing a country, but his early years were a crash course in luxurious living. He flew to Paris to visit Euro Disney. What education he received was in a private school in Switzerland. An early obsession was movies — and the women who starred in them.

Quizzed by a general about his ability to rule the military, Mr. Kim replied, “I have developed a close attachment with planes and warships since my childhood.” His experience was playing with toy planes in the backyard.

But he was wise enough — and brutal enough — to protect his legacy. There was speculation that North Korea was tired of one-family rule.

Hence, Mr. Kim’s accession spawned terror. As Ms. Fifield  observes, “Even a novice knows that getting rid of potential rivals or critics at the beginning is critical … There’s a good reason for terrifying the people at the top.” Most dictators are overthrown not by angry people in the streets, but by regime insiders.

One early victim was Vice Marshal Ri Yon Ho, army of staff and a pallbearer for Kim Jong-il who simply vanished.

More dramatic was the exit of Gen. Hyon Yong Chol, the defense minister — who was said to make the mistake of falling asleep during a Kim speech. He was publicly executed by anti-aircraft guns, “a method that would have blown him to a pulp.”

A particular perceived rival was brother Kim Jong-nam, who had fallen out of favor with his father in his teens and left the country. A high-living playboy who loved his booze, Nam lived in what Ms. Fifeld called a milieu of “gamblers, gangsters and spies.”

He was also said to be an informant for the CIA. Nam was said to provide information to handlers in Singapore and Malaysia. Frequent threats were made on his life.

In 2017, Nam was in the airport in Kuala Lumpur when two women brushed wet towels laden with poison over his face. He died in agony. His brother was widely blamed for the murder.

Mr. Kim’s irresponsible breach of an international agreement on development of nuclear weapons led to a tense showdown with President Trump, with threats back and forth. Mr. Trump’s firmness has apparently caused Mr. Kim to abandon his threat to develop nuclear missiles that would reach the United States.

(One hears murmurs in the intelligence community that “wiser heads” in Pyongyang forced Mr. Kim to abandon his suicidal policy.)

On a positive note, Ms. Fifield reports that Mr. Kim has recognized economic reality and permitted a semblance of local free trade — in apparent recognition that survival of the dynasty depends on better lives for his people.

Thus, the tyrant is temporarily caged — but his recklessness demands continuing scrutiny.

• An updated edition of Joseph Goulden’s “Korea: The Untold Story of the War” (1982) will be issued soon by Dover Publications.

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