Excerpt from "The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un" by Anna Fifield
This week’s free issue of the newsletter is an excerpt from Anna Fifield’s excellent new book The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un.
Anna became the Washington Post's bureau chief in Beijing last summer, after four years covering Japan and the Koreas for the paper. Before that she was a journalist with the Financial Times for 13 years, four of which she spent in Seoul.
In The Great Successor, she presents the most complete portrait to date of Kim Jong Un: how he became the leader of North Korea, and how he has remained the leader of North Korea. She describes his abnormal childhood and his totally dysfunctional family, talking to people who knew him during those early years. Then she describes how, after taking over from his father, he has used the nuclear program and an increasingly market-based economy to present himself as a visionary -- and legitimate -- leader.
North Korea's relationship with China is a constant throughout the book. This excerpt deals with Kim's uncle, Jang Song Thaek, the man who was in charge of economic dealings with China and who was viewed by Beijing as someone who could lead North Korea on a "reform and opening" type course. That may have been part of the reason that Kim Jong Un had Jang killed.
I hope you enjoy the excerpt, and the book in its entirety.
Edited excerpt from The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, by Anna Fifield
The most dangerous time for a novice autocrat is the first two years in power. It’s then that he has to figure out who’s loyal and who’s expendable. It’s during those first two years that someone else who wanted the job is most likely to make a play for it. This is especially the case when the leader inherits his supporters from his predecessor.
So when Kim Jong Un took over, he followed the model used by his father and grandfather and set about making sure the handful of elites who could keep him in power were rich and happy—and getting richer and happier.
Like his patriarchs, he has managed to survive as a dictator by controlling an entire nation through a relatively tiny group of people. It was a rule espoused by Machiavelli: don’t worry about the general population; just be sure to enrich a small, elite group.
Kim Jong Un’s first order of business was to determine who would stay in his small coalition of elites. No one was safe, not even the men who had supported him through the transition period—especially not the men who’d supported him through the transition period.
One of the first to disappear was Vice Marshal Ri Yong Ho, one of the pallbearers during Kim Jong Il’s funeral. He was chief of the Korean People’s Army’s general staff and had kept the military loyal to the Kims during the handover from second to third generation.
But that didn’t protect him. In the middle of 2012, Ri was publicly relieved of his positions—for health reasons, according to the official account. South Korea’s intelligence service said he’d been banished to the northern part of the country. Others speculated that he’d been executed. Either way, he was never seen again. His face was even edited out of photos and his name deleted from all documents. He simply ceased to appear anywhere.
The same happened with General Hyon Yong Chol, who was promoted after Ri was purged to become the North Korea’s equivalent of a defense minister. He vanished at the start of 2016 and was reported to have been executed for insubordination and treason. Among his many alleged transgressions, according to South Korea’s intelligence agency, was falling asleep while Kim Jong Un was speaking.
But he was not quietly eradicated: he was publicly executed by anti-aircraft guns, a method that would have blown him to a pulp. Other officials would certainly have made a mental note to stay wide awake in meetings from them on.
The most shocking purge came at the end of 2013. Another pall-bearer was dispatched, this time in an even more dramatic fashion.
Jang Song Thaek was Kim Jong Un’s uncle by marriage. He and Kim Jong Il’s sister, Kim Kyong Hui, had fallen in love while studying at Kim Il Sung University together. The Great Leader was apparently unimpressed by the upstart young man, but his daughter was insistent on marrying the gregarious Jang.
They had become a power couple in the regime, both becoming close advisors to Kim Jong Il. Jang was put in charge of economic pro- jects, leading everything from coal mine development to construction. He traveled so often for the regime—buying resources needed for his building projects or products that Kim Jong Il wanted—that he became known as “the Kim Jong Il Who Goes Abroad.”
He also played a crucial role in the preparations for Kim Jong Un’s succession. When Kim Jong Il died, Uncle Jang’s place at the very top of the regime was evident when he had walked directly behind Kim Jong Un when they were pallbearers. If he hadn’t been dyeing his hair pitch black for years, he might have been called the éminence grise of the regime.
Several people who’d met him told me he was charismatic. He was considered good looking, and he liked to drink, play cards, and sing karaoke. He was known as a dealmaker and a good one at that. He drew people into his orbit.
Uncle Jang was no angel. He was what might euphemistically be called a ladies’ man or, less euphemistically, a predator. One of the apocryphal stories about him is that he personally held “auditions” for the women who became part of Kim Jong Il’s notorious Pleasure Brigade, his own personal harem.
His outgoing personality and ideas about opening up had landed him in trouble before. Once, during a dinner party in the 1990s, Jang had the temerity to suggest that the regime’s policies might be misguided, given that people were starving. Kim Jong Il was incensed, throwing a silver napkin ring at him. His wife tried to calm the situation, and Jang not only apologized but sang a song to the leader.
Then he landed in a reeducation camp in the countryside in 2004 after Kim Jong Il found out he was throwing wild parties for government officials. Such raucous, reward-laden parties were the preserve of the leader alone.
But Jang was a political striver. As Kim Jong Il’s health worsened, he was given a number of increasingly important positions. In 2010, he was promoted to vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, making him one of the most important officials after Kim Jong Il.
He was widely seen as a man who could act as a kind of regent or caretaker during the transition from Kim Jong Il to the young and inexperienced Kim Jong Un. He might not have had Paektu blood running through his veins, but his marriage to Kim Jong Il’s sister made him the next best thing.
Crucially, Jang was in charge of all-important economic relations with China, North Korea’s neighbor and benefactor. The two countries’ relationship had once been described as being “as close as lips and teeth,” but as China had embraced capitalism with zeal, they were more like relatives awkwardly trying to find common interests to chat about at a family wedding. Still, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, China was North Korea’s only economic benefactor and major political ally. Plus, with their 880-mile-long land border, it was North Korea’s main gateway to the outside world.
Under Jang’s direction, North Korea had been trying to develop special economic zones within the country—the exact kinds of zones that reformist leader Deng Xiaoping had championed in China several decades before. The zones were a safe way for a Communist regime to open a window to capitalism, allowing investment and trade but in strictly controlled circumstances. If the zones went well, the contagion of capitalism could be allowed to spread. If they didn’t please the regime, they could be sealed off.
China had for some years been trying to nudge North Korea along this path. Kim Jong Il pretended to be interested as he was taken on a tour of high-tech companies in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen in 2006.
After Kim Jong Un took over, however, the regime announced the creation of more than a dozen special economic zones, many of them along the border with China, in an experiment designed to attract foreign investment and loosen some red tape to see whether this kind of economic opening could work within North Korea’s political strictures.
Jang was in charge of these efforts. He used it to make a significant fortune of his own along the way, siphoning money from coal exports to line his own pockets. He was in this for himself. But in the North Korean scheme of things, it was easy for Jang to look like a relatively enlightened official.
“Jang was a reformer. He wanted to reform the political environment as well the economy,” said Ro Hui Chang, who was a senior official in charge of the construction workers that North Korea sends abroad to earn money for the regime.
Ro had been part of the money-making elite in North Korea under both Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un. He’d been posted to the Middle East and had overseen the regime’s army of construction workers who were building soccer stadiums and apartment towers in Kuwait and Qatar. Then he went back to Pyongyang for a while before he started managing laborers in Russia when Kim Jong Un took over.
He’d landed this plum position because of his good family back- ground. Ro’s uncle was a police chief. Ro would go over to his apartment and listen while his uncle and Jang sang and played the accordion. Jang thought the boy was “adorable” and told the young Ro to call him “Uncle.”
Ro grew up wanting to be like these two “uncles.” “Jang was my role model since childhood,” he told me, recalling how spirited they both were when they were singing or playing table tennis. When Ro started going to business meetings, he tried to be the same kind of jovial character as Jang, inspiring people with his gregariousness.
Jang believed that the North Korean economy had ground to a halt in the 1990s and that bold change was needed, Ro said. He wanted North Korea to follow China’s example. All it would take was a new mind-set. Ro and the other Jang devotees supported any idea that would allow its anemic economy to flourish.
The uncle wanted to replicate the fast-paced development next door, with Beijing’s cooperation—and money. He wanted to offer greater legal protection for foreign investors as a way to attract outside money from business operators who insisted on making profits and being able to repatriate them. When talking to potential Chinese partners, he was embarrassed that he couldn’t offer even minimum protections for their investments, such as a legal system in case of disputes.
But with this kind of talk, Jang ran afoul of more conservative factions in the Workers’ Party, who told Kim Jong Un that Jang’s ideas were threatening the party’s survival. He had amassed too much power and was promoting too different a vision for North Korea’s future. Rivals within the regime began to whisper in Kim Jong Un’s ear about their concerns. Wasn’t Jang getting a bit too close to China?
These suggestions burst into the open during a trip to China in August 2012, when Jang received red-carpet treatment on a par with that lavished upon Kim Jong Il. An advance party had paved the way, and China’s ambassador to Pyongyang was waiting in Beijing to greet Jang.
Jang then went to see Chinese president Hu Jintao, and photos of the meeting disseminated by the Chinese government showed the two men in dark suits sitting in the Great Hall of the People discussing special economic zones on their shared border like a couple of heads of state. But Jang wasn’t the head of his state.
South Korea’s government, meanwhile, kept suggesting that it was Jang, not Kim, who was really in power in North Korea. This might have been a form of psychological warfare. If it was, it appeared to work. There was room for only one charismatic leader in Kim Jong Un’s North Korea.
For all the outward signs of closeness—sitting together at military parades, walking together at Kim Jong Il’s funeral—Kim Jong Un harbored a deep resentment toward his uncle and aunt. He blamed them for preventing him from ever once meeting his exalted grandfather, Kim Il Sung.
It would have been so much easier for the young despot to claim the right to rule if there was a photograph of him as a little boy sitting on his grandfather’s knee or perhaps out at a shooting range with him. Such a photo would have helped bolster his legitimacy to lead.
But Kim Jong Un didn’t have this photo. And he’d always resented Jang for favoring his older half brother, Kim Jong Nam, to inherit the leadership of the country. Jang and Kim Jong Nam had shared similar ideas about China and economic reform, and that made Kim Jong Un suspicious.
By the end of Kim Jong Un’s first year in power, Jang’s star was waning. He was made chairman of the commission to turn North Korea into a sports power—a move that might look like a promotion but was, in fact, a demotion. Sports are a second-tier issue compared to weighty matters like national security. Then, at the start of 2013, Jang, who was still technically vice chairman of the National Defense Commission, was excluded from North Korea’s equivalent of a National Security Council meeting.
It was around this time that Kim Jong Un hosted the American basketballer Dennis Rodman for the first time. At a game in Pyongyang, a waiter brought what appeared to be a pitcher of cola out to the Great Successor, who was sitting in a red armchair and having the time of his life, the Worm beside him and the Harlem Globetrotters on the court in front of him. Uncle Jang saw the impure drink and had it sent back, ordering a pitcher of water to be brought out instead, according to one person who witnessed the incident. Uncle Jang was treating Kim Jong Un like a child—and in public.
But his relegation to the sidelines became more apparent when Kim sent another aide, not Jang, as a special envoy to China in May.
By the end of 2013, Jang had served his purpose. He had been useful for the inexperienced leader as he was cementing his position. He had been a valuable mentor and advisor. And he had been instrumental in securing the materials and contracts that were needed to build the huge showcase developments like the apartment towers and amusement parks that Kim Jong Un wanted constructed as a tangible sign of progress being made under his leadership.
But it was time for Jang to go.
Kim Jong Un’s father had also been wary of his own uncle. When Kim Jong Il was rising up the ranks in the 1970s, he removed a potential rival for the leadership by sidelining Kim Il Sung’s younger brother. But in that case, the uncle was simply demoted to peripheral roles.
Demotion was not sufficient for Kim Jong Un; he decided to make a lesson out of Jang’s departure. The young leader had quietly dispatched a number of senior officials, but in getting rid of Jang, he decided to send a message to the apparatchiks who kept him in power: watch your step; no one is safe in my North Korea, not even my own family members.
Just a few days shy of his second anniversary as leader, the Great Successor was presiding over an extended meeting of the politburo of the Workers’ Party, sitting in the center of a stage with a huge portrait of his father behind him.
Jang, in a black Mao suit and purple-tinted glasses, was facing Kim in the center aisle of the second row. Partway through the meeting, an official began reading out a long diatribe against Jang, accusing him of trying to accumulate his own power. He was suspected of selling the country’s mineral resources to Chinese companies too cheaply and of trying to undermine the Kim regime, or, as a North Korean newsreader put it, of “vicious efforts to create a faction in the party, creating illusions about himself” and trying to “emasculate the monolithic leadership of the party.”
Kim Jong Un was not going to be emasculated.
The politburo accused Jang, a notorious philanderer, of leading a “dissolute and depraved life,” including “improper relations with several women” and a habit of wining and dining at “deluxe restaurants.” It went on, charging him with using drugs and gambling.
Jang was stripped of all his titles and expelled from the party. For maximum dramatic effect, two uniformed soldiers hauled him from his seat and marched him out of the hall.
In fact, this spectacle appeared to have been staged by the regime. Jang had been arrested and thrown into a special detention facility several months earlier, and his two closest aides were arrested and executed. Two weeks after that, a grim-faced Jang was hauled out of his cell and installed in the front row of the politburo meeting so that Kim Jong Un’s henchmen could arrest him again, this time in public and in front of all his peers.
The footage of Jang being humiliated and carted away was broadcast on Korean Central Television, the first time since the 1970s that North Korea had released the footage of the arrest of a senior official. The following day, the Rodong Sinmun, the mouthpiece of the Workers’ Party, devoted its entire front page to Jang’s crimes and punishment. The state news agency released an extraordinarily long prosecutorial attack against the uncle.
It was a stunning display for this most reticent of regimes, which had long preferred to dispatch fallen cadres behind its tightly closed doors.
To ram the message home, Kim ordered his uncle to be executed four days later. A special military tribunal found Jang had been plotting to overthrow Kim Jong Un and declared him a “traitor for all ages.”
When the tribunal handed down its decision at the trial, or at what the North Korean regime at least called a trial, Jang’s wrongs were described as a betrayal of Kim Jong Un himself.
Jang had shown “dirty political ambition.” He was “despicable human scum.” He was “an anti-party, counter-revolutionary factional element and despicable political careerist and trickster.” He was “worse than a dog.”
The state propagandists poured all their energies into their condemnation of Jang, lapsing into language that sounded almost Shakespearean. He had “perpetrated thrice-cursed acts of treachery,” they said.
As evidence of his treachery, the tribunal cited the fact that Jang didn’t clap much when Kim Jong Un was “elected” to a new post in the Central Military Commission. While everyone else was breaking out into cheers so enthusiastic that they “shook the conference hall,” Jang was a picture of arrogance and insolence, the tribunal said. He took his time standing up, and when he did, his clapping was halfhearted.
The North Korean scribes accused Jang of “dreaming different dreams while in the same bed.” Those dreams centered on a reformed economy with himself, not Kim Jong Un, at the head of it. Jang may have been inside the regime, but he wanted to take it in a different direction.
Some analysts viewed Jang’s execution as a sign of Kim Jong Un’s weakness, of just how threatened he was by his mercurial uncle. They saw it as proof of the lack of cohesion in the young leader’s regime, a signal that he was having trouble rallying the old guard around him. In fact, it was a sign of strength. Kim Jong Un was fully in control, so in control that he could dispose of his uncle and his uncle’s clique in one fell swoop.
He had deliberately staged an unequivocal display of how savage he could be and sent a clear message to anyone else in the regime who might think about promoting his own ideas or creating his own coterie.
This week’s issues of Sinocism: