Magazine

Anna Fifield on the Cult of Kim Jong Un

The Kim cult of personality and what it means for U.S. diplomacy with North Korea.

Shannon Tiezzi
Anna Fifield on the Cult of Kim Jong Un
Credit: Sergei Ilnitsky/Pool Photo via AP

Over the past year and a half, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has stepped into the global spotlight through high-profile summits with fellow leaders from China, Russia, South Korea, and of course the United States. But Kim himself, as a person, remains largely an enigma. In North Korea’s tightly controlled media environment, any stories touching on his personality, relationships, and early life are either shrouded in mystery or ludicrous propaganda. It’s arduous work to try and piece together a portrait of such a man.

Yet that’s exactly the task Anna Fifield took up in her latest book, The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un. Fifield, the Beijing bureau chief for the Washington Post and formerly the Tokyo bureau chief, with a focus on Japan and the Koreas, digs into any and every available source for insights on Kim’s upbringing, personality, and ruthless approach to leadership. Her goal for the book, Fifield says, was “to shed some light on this mysterious man who poses such a large threat to the world.”

Knowing Kim the person has important implications for dealing with North Korea the country. Fifield discusses both in this interview with The Diplomat.

From an outside perspective, the cult of personality built up around Kim Jong Un and his family – including the grandiose language nodded to in the title of your book – looks ridiculous. After all your research for the book, including numerous trips to North Korea, what’s your sense on how this hagiography is received by the North Korean people?

It’s difficult to exaggerate how all-encompassing the personality cult is in North Korea, and that has not changed in the current generation. North Korean children are exposed to this idea that the Kims are quasi-deities from the minute they’re able to comprehend. These children sing songs about their great leaders, and they get candy on his birthday and chant thanks to him for it. It continues from this age onwards, through the education system and the state media. Five decades ago when Kim Il Sung was a strong and powerful leader and North Korea was doing relatively well, people believed in this propaganda. But not anymore. The overwhelming majority of North Koreans have seen media from the outside world – South Korean soap operas, Chinese action films – and they know that North Korea is not the socialist paradise they are constantly told it is.

Likewise, as the myths around the leaders have become more and more far-fetched, many people have realized that they are not true. One of the stories made up about Kim Jong Un when he was preparing to take over the leadership had it that he could shoot a gun and hit a lightbulb 100 yards away when he was a small child. A man I spoke to who had been a soldier in the North Korean army said everyone knew this was ridiculous. Every man in North Korea needs to do military service and every one of them will know that it is impossible for a small child to shoot a real gun, let alone with such accuracy.

So the regime has tried to be calibrated in its claims, to come up with tales that suggest Kim Jong Un is a divinely chosen leader while not going so far as to invite outright mockery. Even though many North Koreans bristle at the idea of a third-generation leader and know that the claims about him are fanciful, there is still no dissent in North Korea. There is no North Korean Solzhenitsyn, there is no samizdat literature, there is not even any graffiti.

When I asked one woman who told me about her disdain for the regime why North Koreans didn’t try to do anything about it, she told me that if you object to the system you don’t try to change it. You just try to escape. This is because the punishment system in North Korea is so draconian – if you criticize the regime, three generations of your family may be thrown in the gulag.