Anna Fifield tells us at the outset of her new biography that she had “wanted to find out everything there was to know about Kim Jong Un.” So she’d “set out to talk to everyone who’d ever met him.”

It was an admirable goal – just what you’d expect from one of the feistier reporters in a business that values feistiness. And putting pretty much all the currently available information between the covers of a single book represents a welcome contribution to the literature.

Readers like me already knew many of the biographical details that Washington Post correspondent Fifield dug up and doled out earlier in articles with datelines such as Bern, Switzerland, where the little prince studied between ages 12 and 17.

Still in The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, we can find rare gems: “Kim Jong Un’s class learned that the French Revolution began in no small part because of the population’s unhappiness that living standards, having started to improve, did not continue to rise.”

Does he remember such lessons? Fifield has her doubts. No better than a middling student, Kim “wasn’t worrying about historical omens. He was busy playing basketball” – not that the game didn’t teach him skills useful to a future absolute dictator:

Kim Jong Un would obsessively analyze the basketball games, [Kim family sushi chef Kenji] Fujimoto said. He would point out players’ strengths and weaknesses, praising those who he deemed to have played well and scolding those who had not. “He had the ability to make good judgments with solid reasoning: he knew when to praise and when to criticize,” the chef recalled. When Kim Jong Un would talk about how harshly he’d criticized a player, he’d smile. He seemed to be practicing the art of command, and he was enjoying the terror that his absolute authority could inspire.

In an interview for the Japan Times, Fifield expanded on such references. “When he was first announced as successor, there was a lot of speculation that Kim Jong Un’s education in Switzerland and time in the West would make him a more liberal and open-minded leader, that he would embark on significant reforms,” she told the interviewer.

“In fact, I think the opposite is true. His time in Switzerland proved to him that, if it weren’t for his family and its totalitarian system, he would be a nobody. Not particularly good at anything, not particularly charismatic, not particularly attractive in any way. Mediocre. His time in Switzerland must have served to convince him even more than anything else that he needs to keep the family dynasty intact. Nowhere else can he be top dog like he is in North Korea.”

Kim’s determination to hang onto power indeed proved to be enormous. Still shy of 30 when he took over, and widely expected to fail, he has “defied the odds to remain in control,” observes Fifield – as “the most Machiavellian figure of our time.” He has “managed to convince some of the most powerful people in the world to treat him like the normal leader of a legitimate state.”

Kim’s determination has extended to some interest in trying to make things better in his country. North Koreans “will never have to tighten their belts again,” he said in his maiden speech. (Belt-tightening, by the way, is literally not for him. Indeed, the obese and short-of-breath Kim’s “biggest risk factor,” Fifield says, is “his health. The young leader looks like a heart attack waiting to happen.”)

Here and there in the book but especially in my favorite chapters, “The Elites of Pyonghattan” and “Millennials and Modernity” (the chapters that rely least on research in the literature and most on the author’s personal encounters with former North Koreans), Fifield offers her take on what has changed in North Korea under Kim Jong Un.

She finds that living standards have improved as more people have shifted from reliance on state jobs to market activities as their main means of support. The manager of the March 26 Electric Cable Factory, when she first met him in 2005, “was a skinny guy in the summer version of a Mao suit.” When she returned in 2016, “he was almost twice as wide. By then he sported a double-breasted suit, and he had the ruddy flush of someone who was eating and drinking well.”

Figuring that something more than a minuscule state salary had fed his prosperity, she “wondered what other business ventures he was involved in.” People who belong informally to the relatively new class referred to as donju, or masters of money, are “given license to expand state entities and cream off the profits, provided they pay a certain proportion back to the state,” she writes. For example,

… an entrepreneur might rent space in a state factory producing shoes. The factory manager, and the Workers’ Party chairman affiliated with the factory, pocket that rent and often additional payments that are called allowances for expenses but are in fact another form of bribery. The entrepreneur uses the space to operate his own business – hiring his own labor and buying his own raw goods to make much better shoes and keeping the profits.

Composite image of Anna Fifield and the book cover of ‘The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un Successor.’ Image: Public Affairs Books

Another master of money …

might buy mining and mineral rights from the central government authorities and then take over mines that have been abandoned because of lack of electricity and the equipment needed to bring out the minerals. They invest in the mine to get it up and running again. They hire workers who, unlike when working for the state, will receive a decent wage. They pay off ministry officials and buy protection from local party cadres and officials in the prosecutor’s office. Then they rake in the cash and pay a share of their profits – about 30% – to the regime as “loyalty funds.”

Some of the “changes” strike me as same old, same old. The current breakneck construction program that has inspired wags to dub the new Pyongyang skyline “Pyonghattan” is the classic Kim Dynasty monumentalism and circuses-over-bread policy that both Granddaddy Kim Il Sung and Daddy Kim Jong Il had indulged in.

Fifield acknowledges that the country’s single-digit growth rates “are not much, compared to other developing economies,” but says they’re “enough to add a ring of truth to the regime’s insistence that life is getting better.”

Of course, much of any improvement goes to the elite that keeps Kim in power. And, Fifield observes, his primary target among that elite is “millennials, the people of his generation – who, if they felt they were flourishing under his leadership, could potentially keep him in power for decades to come.”

Fifield’s first visit to North Korea was in 2005. She saw “women dressed very conservatively and with decidedly communist aesthetics: drab browns and grays and black, long skirts, shapeless jackets, functional shoes.”

Now, though, “North Koreans a few years younger than Kim Jong Un wear clothes from stores like H&M, Zara and Uniqlo. Women wear more colorful and fitted clothes, sparkly jewelry and look-at-me high heels. Conspicuous consumption is no longer a crime against socialism.”

That phrase, “crime against socialism,” set me to thinking back on the North Koreans I came to know, at least a little, from visits I made starting in 1979 and ending before Kim Jong Un came to power. There was something positively sweet about many of those people.

Unattractive as their ideology was to me – with its unquestioning veneration of the cynical, purportedly godlike leader – I had to acknowledge that many North Koreans I met (or, in the case of health professionals, heard about) reminded me of sincere, modest, cheerful, Golden Rule-following Christians. Those Kim-followers seemed to have internalized and obeyed socialist exhortations that they strive to become “new human beings.”

But then I was placed on Pyongyang’s blacklist – haven’t been permitted to return for over a decade. Reading in Fifield’s book about today’s younger North Koreans tends to confirm my suspicion that a lot of them are not very nice people, a significant if unwelcome change.

Nara, for example, had received a $400 monthly allowance from her master-of-money father while attending an arts high school. “Of course there were some poor kids in my school but I didn’t hang out with them,” she told Fifield. “When boys came up to talk to me, I’d check out their phone. If they had one of those old-style phones with buttons, I wasn’t interested.”

Nara added: “The other thing we looked at was their outfits. If they were wearing clothes made in North Korea, they were a no. We were only interested in boys wearing foreign clothes.”

The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un (Anna Fifield), published by Public Affairs (US$28.00).

Bradley K. Martin is the author of Under the Loving Care of the Fatherly Leader: North Korea and the Kim Dynasty and of the North Korea-set thriller Nuclear Blues.