The Great Successor is a biography of Kim Jong Un.

Kim Jong Un is thirty-five years old now, but he’s been the designated leader of his country since the age of eight. People decades older than him have been sucking up to him all his life. He is “five feet, seven inches tall, and his weight is estimated to be about three hundred pounds.” The man has at least thirty-three homes; “his main compound in northeast Pyongyang covers almost five square miles.” And since he has followed in the footsteps of his tyrannical grandfather and father, it should be no surprise that he had one senior general executed for falling asleep in a meeting with him.

Of course, Kim has also had his half-brother and his uncle murdered. And he was personally responsible for sinking a South Korean warship off the coast without provocation at the cost of more than forty lives. Welcome to the world of Kim Jong Un, as revealed in The Great Successor, a penetrating new biography by Washington Post reporter Anna Fifield.

The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un by Anna Fifield (2019) 303 pages @@@@@ (5 out of 5)

A penetrating, up-to-date biography of Kim Jong Un

Since North Korea generally and Kim Jong Un in particular have been prominent in the news in recent years, you probably know a fair amount about the man. You may even have read about the radio installed in every household “that can never be turned off and can never be tuned to a different station.” But it’s unlikely you’re aware of the changes Kim has engineered during the seven years he’s been in power.

The new wealthy elite in “Pyonghattan”

For example, Kim has ordered so much new construction in the capital that it’s now sometimes called Pyonghattan. The pampered minority who are privileged to live there can now take advantage of a wide range of foreign cuisine and luxury goods—if they have enough money to pay the outrageous prices. And there is a growing number who do. Kim has created a wealthy elite (“the Russian oligarchs of North Korea”) to surround himself with people who know their lives and livelihood depend entirely on him.

“There is now a middle class in North Korea”

Although the UN “estimates 40 percent of the population is undernourished, and stunting and anemia are still major concerns,” Fifield reports “there is now a middle class in North Korea.” Nobody lives well on the average salary of $4 a month. Most of the income that permits a rising percentage of families to lift themselves out of penury comes from selling food or smuggled goods in local markets. And those markets now exist throughout North Korea because Kim ordered the police and security services not to enforce the laws against capitalism.

There seems little likelihood that the North Korean economy will collapse, as so many have observers have predicted from time to time. The country “has now existed for longer than the Soviet Union.” And Fifield leaves no doubt that Kim Jong Un is the undisputed leader.

About the author

Anna Fifield is the Beijing Bureau Chief for the Washington Post. From 2014 to 2018, she was the Post’s Bureau Chief in Tokyo and reported for the Financial Times for thirteen years before that. The Great Successor, her first book, is based on “hundreds of hours of interviews across eight countries.”

For further reading

This is one of 10 good books about North Korea reviewed here. In some ways, it’s the most informative one of all.

You might also be interested in:

And you can always find my most popular reviews, and the most recent ones, plus a guide to this whole site, on the Home Page.