Book Review: Anna Fifield's 'The Great Successor'
It’s long been said about the late Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time that it was one of the most unread blockbuster books of all time. Readers can probably guess why.
Hawking’s bestseller oddly came to mind while reading Washington Post reporter Anna Fifield’s new book about North Korea tyrant Kim Jong Un, The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un. Kim Jong Un (KJU going forward) is a source of fascination for all too many people, yet I found myself hoping for Fifield that people might buy Fifield’s book solely for display purposes a la Hawking's. The book reads as something that was put together in incredibly rushed fashion, and that was edited even more quickly. Having purchased The Great Successor (TGS going forward) with great excitement given my desire to learn more about KJU, I found myself gradually trusting Fifield’s reporting less and less as a consequence of all the book’s errors, non sequiturs and passages that seemingly went nowhere.
So while there are parts of TGS that were interesting, and information that I’ll surely be referencing and quoting in the future (it will be discussed further along in the review), I’ll begin with some of the errors simply because the slipshod construction of TGS may make it difficult for some readers to believe even what reads as believable. Either Fifield did herself a disservice, or publisher PublicAffairs did Fifield a service, or both parties were at such substantial odds during the production of TGS such that each side harmed the other.
Up front, the book is very frustrating. Many statements, many leading passages after which the reader expects to happen on informational gold, only for the leading passages to go nowhere. Fifield wrote of Japanese-born sushi chef turned Kim family chef Kenji Fujimoto, noted that Fujimoto “had become something of a Kim-Jong-Un-ologist,” quoted him as saying “[I]f you want to talk about North Korea, call me” given how Fujimoto had known KJU since his early days, only for few details about KJU and North Korea more broadly to be forthcoming. Indeed, all readers got from Fifield’s reporting on the alleged insider were limp anecdotes about KJU et al admiring his skill with a kite, and that KJU referred to him as “Fujimoto.”
Worse is how the book just jumps around. On p. 40-41 a reader learns about a Tokyo Disney trip KJU took with his mother, Fujimoto teaching KJU and siblings to wave, that KJU was a big fan of 7’8” North Korean basketball star Michael Ri, that Ri towered over the funeral proceedings in 2011 for KJU’s father Kim Jong Il, only for the page to end with the aforementioned tidbit about KJU referring to Fujimoto as “Fujimoto.” The book too often reads as a collection of unrelated bits of information that collectively amount to less than nothing. To say TGS was poorly edited is quite the understatement. Worse, the poor editing rendered it a bit of a bore. These books are supposed to be consumed in a night or weekend, but it took weeks to finish.
On p. 44 of TGS, Fifield quotes KJU as saying in 2010 that “I have formed a close attachment with planes and warships since my childhood.” Two pages later, on p. 46, the same quote led Chapter 3.
About KJU’s time as a student in Switzerland, Fifield makes the odd contention (p. 48) that he and other family members would be able to conceal their identity while there, but the stranger aspect of the Switzerland reporting was seemingly how lazy was some of what Fifield put to paper. She’s clear that KJU was being educated in a very well-to-do part of a country hardly known for poverty, only for the author to contend about KJU’s $200 pairs of Air Jordan shoes that the “other kids in the school could only dream of having such shoes.” Really?
On p. 72 “Mr. Kang, the drug dealer” is mentioned. Ok, but just who is “Mr. Kang, the drug dealer”? You see, in the index of TGS Mr. Kang first comes up on p. 108. The information he provides is similarly of no consequence. On p. 212 Fifield references “the embarrassment of being caught at the airport in Tokyo” for Kim Jong Nam (the brother of KJU who was famously murdered in Malaysia in 2017), but there’s no prior reference to the arrest or embarrassment. About President Nixon’s foreign policy approach, readers learn on p. 234 that he “called it his ‘madman theory’ of coercive diplomacy, and then on p. 235 Fifield quotes Nixon directly: “I call it the Madman Theory.”
And while it was a revelation (at least to this reader) that basketball Hall of Famer (and eccentric) Dennis Rodman told KJU during a trip to North Korea that “your father and your grandfather did some fucked-up shit” without eliciting a crazed response from the young dictator (Rodman concluded the previous sentence with “But you, you’re trying to make a change, and I love you for that.”), the lead-up to the Chicago Bulls stuff still read as poorly crafted, or unclear. Indeed, seven pages before the Rodman quote was a passage suggesting that the basketball diplomacy (of which Rodman was the most famous participant) happened because when KJU “arrived in Switzerland in the summer of 1996, the Bulls had just won the NBA championship series.” At the very least the presumed correlation required clarification. Specifically, why did KJU’s arrival in Switzerland in 1996 matter? Had he before then not been exposed to U.S. culture? That seems unlikely in consideration of a referenced trip to Tokyo Disney among others, but also because KJU and his father plainly didn’t suffer the lack of access to outside culture that the typical citizen did. So again, what does KJU’s 1996 arrival in Switzerland have to do with his love of the Bulls? It’s not as though the family moved to Cicero that year. The book is so very pregnant with sentences that ring untrue, unclear, or both.
All of this is disappointing mainly because there’s some important information in TGS, information that would ideally prove useful and encouraging to even the hardest of hard-line North Korea and KJU critics. Perhaps most crucial is that from 2004 to 2008, Fifield “traveled to North Korea ten times, including five reporting trips to Pyongyang.” This is important in consideration of a subsequent visit Fifield made to Pyongyang in 2014. As the reporter put it, “I was stunned.” [my emphasis]. Fifield went on to write:
“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.”
Readers, this is important. It’s evidence of something that many of us are perhaps not hearing or reading when it comes to North Korea: the country is liberalizing economically. It has to be. We know from the 20th century that in countries bereft of economic freedom, construction booms aren’t happening. North Korea is changing, for the better.
To be clear, Fifield in no way indicates that it has become an overnight land of smiling, free people. Plainly not. Though Fifield dismisses as ludicrous the story about KJU having unleased a pack of wild dogs on an uncle high up in North Korea’s leadership structure, it’s also apparent that KJU spent his early years consolidating power in ways that weren’t always peaceful. Thomas Jefferson KJU is not.
At the same time, it’s apparent that KJU has recognized that his ability to remain in control of North Korea will be, in the words of Fifield, contingent on giving “people a sense of a better life.” To bring this about, Fifield writes that KJU “simply stopped stifling enterprise.”
Fifield reports that more “than 10% of North Koreans now have cell phones,” and the previous truth speaks to an information explosion that KJU is unlikely to be able to stop. This matters because assuming they didn’t know, the people according to Fifield now know that China is “much richer” and that South Korea is “much, much richer.” Happily, the people aren’t just discovering the outside world through these smartphones that U.S. pundits like Oren Cass have embarrassingly dismissed as “cheap stuff.” North Koreans plainly disagree with Cass, and others so ready to turn their noses up to the fruits of capitalism. Not only have smartphones opened their eyes to the world around them, but per Fifield they “have also helped stabilize prices. People know when a new shipment of rice is coming across the border, so they’ll wait rather than pay high prices when stocks are low.”
Fifield confirms that there “is now a middle class in North Korea,” but much more important when it’s remembered how much they drive opportunity, Fifield quotes a North Korean living in the Washington, D.C. area as telling her that “[W]hen it comes to getting rich, there are few rules anymore.” Beautiful. While left and increasingly the right pretend that rich people stifle opportunity, the reality is that you rarely hear about poor Americans moving to Jackson, MS, Charleston, WV or Buffalo, NY in search of economic opportunity. They go to where the rich people live and work. That’s where the opportunity is. If people are now free to get rich in North Korea, this signals opportunity for those not so commercially skilled.
About these economic developments, it seems Fifield is more of a reporter than an economic thinker. This rates mention mainly because she’s prone to writing economically false notions along the lines of how North Korea’s 1994 famine happened because “it didn’t have enough arable farm land, and it didn’t have enough energy to produce the chemical fertilizer needed to boost crops.” Based on Fifield’s logic, New York City’s Manhattan is similarly starving due to a lack of “arable land” and fertilizer there. No. Not at all. In a free economy, specialized people can consume all sorts of market goods that are manufactured, raised and grown far from them. Production leads to the inflow of abundant goods and services. When markets are open it's as though the businesses of the world are all headquartered next door. Fifield should acknowledge what’s obvious: a bad crop never causes a famine in modern times. Only a lack of economic freedom does.
Later on Fifield claims that a “real estate boom” in North Korea is an effect of an “almost complete lack of a banking system.” More likely it’s a consequence of a lack of trust in the country’s money, government or both. If the country were free, it wouldn’t need to have a domestic banking system. Finance would come to North Korea, and likely already has. Housing consumption isn’t a banking thing as much as it’s a way for individuals to conservatively protect wealth.
Still, those critiques are minor quibbles. Despite the awful editing, despite passages that go nowhere, and despite assertions that make no sense, there are interesting things to be found in TGS. Maybe most interesting is that Fifield is “optimistic about the process,” that while she doesn’t think KJU will ever fully “give up his nuclear weapons” after seeing what happened to Libya’s Gaddafi (he did not have nukes), she believes he’s eager to pursue prosperity over an arms buildup in the years ahead.
Where it gets even more interesting is that she’s not wholly dismissive of President Trump. She sees him as “unlike any president the United States had ever seen,” and this happily includes his approach to foreign policy. Trump’s belief that he can “build a personal rapport” with KJU is quite something, and it’s an approach that suits the North Korean leader. She seems to view Trump's role in North Korea's evolution as laudable. Maybe peace can be had. If so, brilliant.
According to Fifield, KJU is signaling to the world that he doesn’t want “to be a dull Stalinist dictator.” Instead, he wants to “be a developmental dictator of the kind that has flourished in other parts of Asia.” So again, Thomas Jefferson he’s not. At the same time, if Kim Jong Un pursues the economic freedom route, future prosperity is assured. What a story if so. The shame is that a potentially exciting story like this was so often obscured by what this writer presumes was a hard deadline that ensured enormous amounts of copying and pasting, followed by the mother of all rushed edits. An interesting book was lost in the process.