NOT TOO MANY 38-years-olds deserve their own biography, let alone two. But ever since Kim Jong Un became the third ruler of North Korea in 2011, he has fascinated the American media. A Seth Rogen movie, The New Yorker covers, and South Park cartoons have all made Kim — and his haircut — the target of much lampooning. And in one of the strangest twists in recent international diplomacy, Donald Trump caused a sensation by announcing the two “fell in love” with each other. All this publicity has ultimately resulted in a cartoonish version of Kim, which, however good for a chuckle, obscures how this enigmatic dictator and his family have ruled over the course of three generations.
Kim is no easy subject for biography. The CIA classifies North Korea as the hardest intelligence target in the world. And any biographer needs to cut through the flowery rhetoric, the loving photographs, and the fabricated histories produced daily by North Korean state media.
Thankfully, in taking this challenge on, a pair of biographies escape pop culture versions of Kim to ponder the question that has fixated Pyongyang-watchers: how much time does the guy have left? The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un was written by Anna Fifield, a former Washington Post correspondent and now an editor back in her native New Zealand after stints in Seoul and Beijing. Becoming Kim Jong Un: A Former CIA Officer’s Insights into North Korea’s Enigmatic Young Dictator was written by a former CIA analyst who is now a Brookings Institution senior fellow, Jung H. Pak. Their answers reveal as much about the assumptions and biases in the question as they do about Kim.
It is perhaps not too much of a surprise that, when it comes to Kim Jong Un, neither author suffers the biographer’s temptation to grow overly fond of their subject. Fifield shows her flair for interviews, meeting with Kim’s former sushi chef, a secretive family member in France, and émigrés scattered around the globe. Full of anecdotes about Kim’s temper tantrums and the perks — shark-fin soup and jet skiing — of life inside what she calls the “royal palace,” she concludes Kim “grew up feeling like the most special little boy in the universe.”
With her background in the world of intelligence, Pak comes to similar conclusions by distilling English-language secondary studies and media reports. But as is typical of her writing, Pak’s language is harsher, seeing Kim as a “thin-skinned young man with an outsize view of himself, who during his entire life was coddled and heard nothing but sycophantic praise from those around him.”
How does this insular upbringing translate into his rule? Neither author is clear on this point. They do want their readers to know that his unusual early years did not make Kim a “madman” and emphasize that he is rational and calculating. To this mix, Pak convincingly argues Kim has a high tolerance for risk. Otherwise, both authors emphasize Kim’s spoiled childhood to foreshadow their main theme: Kim and his regime’s brutality.
No one can doubt there is a fundamental viciousness to Kim’s security apparatus. The evidence the authors muster — from the made-for-TV arrest of his uncle to the use of a chemical agent to assassinate his half-brother — shows that Kim does not shy away from using the nastiest of dictatorial tools. Yet this is hardly news, and full-length biographies might be expected to offer more than daily newspaper coverage.
In many ways, Fifield’s and Pak’s single-minded emphasis on oppression in North Korea is reminiscent of old interpretations of Stalin. At the height of the Cold War, it was Stalin’s purges and gulags that seemed to epitomize his rule, just as today it is Kim’s prisons and human rights abuses that feature in headlines. By the 1980s, however, Soviet specialists realized that even such a repressive state as Stalin’s could not govern by the gun alone. Since then, understanding of Stalinism has broadened. “Uncle Joe” had a wider array of tools than previously understood, and the Soviet peoples engaged the state in ways that, however indirectly and unintentionally, supported the regime.
Fifield’s and Pak’s stress on coercion often leads them to miss out on other dimensions of Kim’s rule — even when those dimensions make brief appearances in their own books. Fifield tells us about meeting Mr. Hong, a North Korean émigré who lost his savings in a currency re-denomination. He remembers, “I thought that Kim Jong Il really cared for the people, but when […] all my savings were wiped out, I knew that wasn’t the case.” For Fifield, Mr. Hong exemplifies a believer having an epiphany about the truth of the regime. Fair enough. Yet in the first part of his statement, Mr. Hong admits a time when he was confident in the leadership. How so? Fifield does not ask. If we are to understand how the regime “defies the odds,” as Fifield puts it, what needs to be spelled out is why a budding entrepreneur like Mr. Hong did not think antagonistically about the regime in the first place. Instead, his “realization” only confirms what we already know. As is so often the case when it comes to North Korea, voices that do not fit preconceptions about life under Kim’s rule are not heard.
Similarly, Pak mentions Kim’s efforts to create a “personal bond with the people” and the potency of Korean nationalism, even anti-Americanism. These are chances for Pak to consider Kim’s rule as something more than just top-down command-ism. But it is easier to make light of absurd propaganda, such as the racialized portrayals of Americans with outsize noses, rather than to take seriously the political effects of a long history of anti-Americanism stretching back to the war. After all, millions of North Koreans fought against the United States in the 1950–’53 war. Roughly half of all families are estimated to have experienced a casualty — largely due to American bombing. It should not be difficult to appreciate how wartime anti-Americanism merged into a longer history of Korean nationalism, which in turn the Kims have tried to use for their benefit. How do these sentiments play out in the regime’s relation with the population? Or given Pak’s interest in US policy, how do American sanctions fit — or not — this nationalist worldview? Pak does not ask. There is no easy answer, of course, but underplaying nationalism’s power or dismissing it as hollow propaganda misses out on long-term historical forces that have been central to the power of all three Kim generations.
No book on North Korea can ignore the enormous economic changes experienced over the last quarter of a century. Both authors describe the appearance of young urbanites carrying Gucci bags (real and fake) and the use of smart phones as status symbols (without international accessibility). The economy has edged so far away from its centralized planning past that apartment units are now sold and up to 80 percent of people’s income comes from the market. There is little worth describing as “socialist.” Or as one émigré tells Fifield, “[T]here are few rules anymore.”
On how to interpret these changes, the authors differ. For Pak, consumer developments show the fragility of the state. Wearing gold watches and buying flat-screen TVs comes with growing popular expectations that, she believes, the regime cannot tame. Strangely, though, Pak’s description finishes by suggesting that none of these market forces really matter, since ultimately it is all about Kim’s hard power: as the last sentence of her economy chapter insists, he “rules through terror and repression, and the terrorized and the repressed will have little choice but to feed Kim’s illusions and expectations.” Coercion is a reassuring refrain for Pak, an easy substitute for broader analysis of the political economy. The result is a unidimensional portrait of Kim’s regime, with little consideration of the social, economic, or cultural factors that both constrain and produce his style of rule.
Fifield also sees the market as difficult to control but, refreshingly, not as the bringer of freedoms that will magically work to undermine the regime. For Fifield, it is not just that markets have made life better for some people, it is also that more people have developed a self-interested stake in the regime. She shows the virtues of stepping outside old frameworks, venturing that markets may “help stabilize the system by spreading the wealth around.” In other words, the regime is adapting and taking advantage of markets — a telling point few “Kim-Jong-Un-ologists,” to use Fifield’s term, consider. It is possible to go one step further and wonder whether commercialization may be a newfound source of power, not weakness, for the regime — like the way early reforms boosted the Chinese Communist Party’s fortunes.
The next time a prediction about “How much time does North Korea have left?” comes out wrong, we should consider how the problem with this guessing game rests not with Kim Jong Un’s stubbornness in the face of history, but with our own habits of analysis. All roads seem to lead to regime collapse only because our imagination about North Korea cannot move beyond our own obsessions with its strangeness and its repressive state-power. Old habits die hard, but as both books show, there is much more at play.