Wishful thinking is an underappreciated yet potent force in western foreign policy. When Kim Jong-un inherited his family’s dictatorship in North Korea at the age of 27, there were widespread predictions that his youth and Swiss education would make him an enlightened reformer. Who could experience the benefits of western democracy and not want it for their own country? The same optimism accompanied the rise of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, a British-trained ophthalmologist, and that of Mohammed Bin Salman in Saudi Arabia, who liked to hang out with tech entrepreneurs in California.
All three dauphins have proved more bloodthirsty and implacable than their fathers. Growing up in the cosseted confines of a ruling dynasty and being treated as a demigod from birth can warp the humanity out of anyone.
Kim is a special case – the third-generation dictator of the world’s most totalitarian state, one armed with nuclear weapons. How this chubby tyrant sees the world makes an enormous difference. As his venture into nuclear diplomacy with Donald Trump (another spoiled princeling with limited empathy) hangs in the balance, there is no better time to read a new biography of him.
Anna Fifield’s The Great Successor is elegantly written and exhaustively researched. Fifield tracks down everyone outside North Korea who has met Kim, from school friends to servants to family members in hiding under false names. She has been reporting on the Korean peninsula since 2004, making a total of 14 trips to the world’s most reclusive state.
The story Fifield tells, as befits the supreme ruler of a bizarrely unique country, is vivid to say the least. One of the character witnesses is Kenji Fujimoto, a Japanese sushi chef who replied to a job advertisement on a whim in 1982 to go to work in North Korea. He ended up slicing fish for Kim Jong-il, the current dictator’s father, for 15 years. The rice was produced in a special area of the country and picked one grain at a time by female workers tasked with ensuring each was flawless and of equal size.
Fujimoto was a playmate to the lonely Jong-un, who spent his early years behind the high walls of a leadership compound in Pyongyang, his every caprice catered for (including a real car at the age of seven, and a Colt .45 pistol at the age of 11), but with only his introverted older brother and much younger sister for company. Fifield finds Fujimoto (a pseudonym) in a small Japanese mountain town where he is supposed to be lying low. He comes to meet her at the train station wearing a black bandanna decorated with a white skull motif, purple-tinted glasses, an oversize watch and a diamond-encrusted ring – “more rapper bling than low-profile witness protection scheme”, as she observes drily. His business card has a picture of Kim Jong-un embracing him on one side and, on the other, states: “If you want to talk about North Korea, call me.”
For sheer oddity, Fujimoto is outdone only by Dennis Rodman, the retired basketball star from the mighty Chicago Bulls team of the 1990s. Rodman, struggling with an alcohol problem and trying to leverage his past glory into paid work any way he can, finds himself the only man on Earth personally acquainted with both Trump and Kim at a time when their two countries seemed on the brink of war. He had appeared twice on Trump’s reality show The Celebrity Apprentice, and was the second-choice Chicago Bull to go to Pyongyang in 2013 as part of a wheeze by Vice News to get close to the young North Korean leader (an obsessive Bulls fan). Michael Jordan hated flying.
The deeply weird relationship between the faded hoops legend and the communist despot is the book’s uproarious comic interlude between murders and nuclear bomb making. Rodman arrived for a gala reception in his honour dressed to the nines, in grey T-shirt, black jacket, hot pink scarf matching his pink and white nail polish. In his big speech before the Brilliant Comrade, he declared: “Marshal, your father and your grandfather did some fucked-up shit. But you, you’re trying to make a change, and I love you for that.” Everyone held their breath, until the young dictator raised his glass and smiled. It is a reasonable bet that the Kim’s interpreter glossed over the rougher edges of Rodman’s message. The American ended up sharing a drunken karaoke night with his host. Rodman sang “My Way” while Kim went with James Brown’s “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine”.
Camp farce sits uneasily side by side with the horrors of Kim’s consolidation of control. He killed many of the old party faithful who had helped smooth the transition of power after his father’s death. He reportedly had a top general executed by anti-aircraft gun for the crime of falling asleep when the leader was speaking. He had his uncle arrested and denounced as “despicable human scum” and “worse than a dog” before being executed. He had his half brother, Kim Jong-nam, killed by VX nerve agent at the check-in queue at Kuala Lumpur airport. The binary ingredients of the poison were administered by two women who were told they were taking part in a TV prank show. Fifield’s revelation that the murdered sibling had been a CIA informant is just one of the many new details in the book. And Kim expanded the gulags for lesser offenders built by his father and grandfather, Kim Il-sung, and added some of his own.
Kim also completed the family project, building a working nuclear arsenal, including a hydrogen bomb and ICBMs capable of reaching the continental US. Fifield agrees with the expert consensus that it is fantasy to expect he would now give up this “treasured sword” for any economic incentives. But she is optimistic a deal can be struck that could cap the growth of the arsenal. For that to happen, however, it would help if his negotiating partner would find a mid-point between threats of annihilation and overwrought flattery.
• The Great Successor: The Secret Rise and Rule of Kim Jong Un is published by John Murray (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.