The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Inside the hidden life of Kim Jong Un

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, center, alongside his wife, Ri Sol Ju, center left, takes in a gymnastics and artistic performance at May Day Stadium in Pyongyang on June 3. (Korean Central News Agency/Korea News Service/AP)

Krys Lee is the author of the novels “Drifting House” and “How I Became a North Korean.”

Few heads of state inspire as many jokes as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. After nicknames like “Kim Fatty III ” and “Fatty Kim” went viral in China, Beijing cracked down on their use. In the United States, the presidentially bestowed nickname “Rocket Man” has a derogatory ring, partly because of the failure of multiple North Korean missile launches. Kim’s socializing with the NBA’s former enfant terrible Dennis Rodman also has set him up for ridicule. But in “The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un,” Anna Fifield forcefully demonstrates that the North Korean leader is far more savvy, ambitious and ruthless than his ludicrous nicknames suggest.

Writing a biography of Kim is a notoriously difficult undertaking. False information abounds, and testimonies of North Korean escapees and refugees can be unreliable. To overcome these hurdles, Fifield has cross-checked a wealth of facts, relied on extensive primary and secondary sources, and engaged in old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting.

The infamously secretive nation goes to great lengths to protect the life story of its leader. When traveling abroad, for instance, Kim brings a private staff to “forensically clean” dishes, scrub hotel rooms and cart in portable toilets “so that he won’t leave any samples from which health information could be extracted.” And when a relative exposes family secrets to foreign media, as we now know, that person is assassinated.

Fifield, currently Beijing bureau chief for The Washington Post, has widely covered North Korea, and “The Great Successor” is a hard-earned, comprehensive portrait of Kim and his country’s uncertain future.

Hereditary succession began in North Korea under the direction of its first leader, Kim Il Sung, who ruled from 1948 until his death in 1994. Handing the leadership to his son, Kim Jong Il, was arguably North Korea’s biggest break from traditional communism and required decades of planning. Steps included removing from political dictionaries the definition of hereditary succession as “a reactionary custom of exploitive societies,” creating patriotic songs that incorporated the heir, and hanging portraits of father and son in public places throughout the nation.

The succession of the grandson, Kim Jong Un, looked more unlikely. His grandfather was a revered Korean war hero, while Kim Jong Un had no such illustrious background. He had two half siblings and two full siblings, but with the help of his determined mother, Ko Yong Hui, Kim Jong Un emerged as the favorite to lead the nation.

In 1996, at age 12, Kim Jong Un embarked on a relatively ordinary student life in Switzerland, under the alias Pak Un. Based on interviews with his friends and his aunt Kim Yong Suk and uncle Ri Gang, who raised him in his first few years in Bern, Fifield draws an intriguing composite portrait of a lonely teenager who studied democracy and the French Revolution and played basketball passionately. After he was summoned back to Pyongyang, as his father Kim Jong Il’s health deteriorated, Kim Jong Un’s private life became hazier.

Once Kim Jong Un took power he needed to demonstrate his break from the miserable rule of his father and respond resourcefully to international sanctions. As a young, inexperienced leader hoping to extend his family’s reign, Kim presented to the people a combination of terror and hope. He cracked down on border crossings, the flow of information and religious practices. To demonstrate his willingness to terrorize the nation, he executed his uncle Jang Song Thaek in public and had his half brother Kim Jong Nam assassinated in Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

Fifield describes North Korea’s economic shifts: the development of numerous legalized markets and a rise in entrepreneurism. Where once travel permits were mandatory and cellphones banned, there is now widespread use of mobile phones, and a growing private transport industry has revolutionized the economy. State-run companies are increasingly managed according to market principles. Operations are driven by profits, and managers have the freedom to hire and fire workers.

But bribery is still a way of life. Much of the economy resides in a “gray zone” — trading operations may not be legal, but they’re not exactly illegal, either. State firms once focusing on specific products, such as the cigarette-maker My Hometown, now produce a range of goods to alleviate the pressure from sanctions. Power outages in prime real estate are common. Few beyond state-employed hackers can access the Internet. And many people have a vested interest in maintaining a system that benefits them.

Still, Kim has shown himself in some ways to be a new leader breaking with North Korea’s ingrained culture. His wife, Ri Sol Ju, appears regularly in public, unlike her predecessors. She is certainly the first to appear publicly arm in arm with her husband. “In a country where even the wives of top cadres wore the shapeless socialist outfits that made everyone equally drab,” Fifield writes, “Ri cut a strikingly modern figure.” She was seen in “a jacket with red polka dots — and often sported a pearl brooch instead of the mandatory Kim pin worn by everyone else.” She even “wore platform peep-toe pumps.”

Kim’s appearance is modeled on that of his revered grandfather, but he has been more forthright with the public. He has openly acknowledged the people’s economic hardship, has allowed once-forbidden images to air on TV and publicly said in 2012 that a launched satellite had failed to enter orbit, a rare admission for a North Korean leader.

In Pyongyang, Western food and fashion mingle with stodgy monuments. Plastic surgery is commonplace for the elite, and bikinis are fashion statements of modernity. Why long for New York when, as Fifield dubs it, you have “Pyonghattan”?

“The Great Successor” is essential reading for anyone seeking insight on one of the world’s least-understood leaders. Though he may be young, Kim has forced South Korea, China and the United States to take him seriously. The book makes a convincing argument that with Kim at the helm, North Korea is painfully forging its way toward a more prosperous, stable future, whether or not the West likes it.

The Great Successor

By Anna Fifield

PublicAffairs. 308 pp. $28