The Republic of Wadiya, as imagined in the 2012 film The Dictator, used to be how I thought about North Korea. And Kim Jong Un was Aladdin, a comical, if tyrannical, leader. Then I picked up Anna Fifield’s The Great Successor and realised that while one was farce, the other was not. Fifield’s storytelling credentials are extraordinary, and her tales are infused with insights that open up new layers of understanding about one of the most mysterious countries on earth.
North Korea is a product of World War Two. In 1910, Imperial Japan invaded Korea. But when the Japanese surrendered at the behest of two atomic bombs in 1945, allies, the United States and the Soviet Union, decided to split up the Korea bounty. The Americans occupied the South and the Soviets took the North. One capitalist, the other socialist. And destinies diverged.
The North Korea that emerged in 1948, formally as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), was no doubt influenced by China and the Soviet Union, but it became something entirely different. While the Soviet Union would collapse at the later end of the 20th century and China, in the 1970s, would choose a path of opening up and reform, embracing capitalism, North Korea dug its feet in the sand and stayed closed-up to the world. One reason was that, since creation, the country has been ruled by one family – the Kims. Communism is no stranger to personality cults, but the North Korean version, in Fifield’s telling, is a masterclass.
Before Kim Jong-Un, there were two other Kims. Kim Il Sung, who was born into a Christian family, was the founding leader of North Korea after currying and winning favour with the Soviets. As soon as he was appointed, Kim Il Sung began to craft a “personality cult so pervasive that it would soon make Stalin look like an amateur,” Fifield writes. “Within a year, Kim started going by the title ‘The Great Leader’. Statues of him started to appear, and history began to be rewritten.”
Kim Il Sung was succeeded by his son, Kim Jong Il after he suffered a heart attack and died on July 8, 1994. Kim Jong Il carried on his father’s legacy until 2011 when he also passed on the baton to his 29(or 30)-year-old son, Kim Jong Un. No other communist regime has been able to manage the transition of power from father to son. North Korea has done it twice. How?
Fifield offers some answers. To create his ideal state, Kim Il Sung borrowed some of the feudal practices of the Chosun Dynasty, which ruled Korea for five centuries until almost 1900. Chief among his borrowings was the discriminatory class system called songbun, which divides North Korea into 51 different categories that fall into three broad classes: loyal, wavering, and hostile.
The loyal, of course, are the elite. “They are the 10 to 15 percent of the population who are considered the most politically committed to the system and have the most interest in it continuing it,” Fifield writes. At the bottom of the class system are the hostile, those considered Japanese collaborators, the Christians, the sceptics. “They comprise about 40 percent of the population and are generally banished to the inhospitable mountains of the north, where winters are unbearable and food is scarce even by North Korean standards.”
The wavering class, stuck in the middle, are “the ordinary people who make up about half the North Korean population. They exist in a kind of limbo.”
Class might not be a bad thing if there is a chance of mobility. But the divisions are not designed to inspire hope, but to keep elites in check. “Someone born with bad songbun has no hope of moving up the social hierarchy,” Fifield notes. “The upper levels, however, can plummet all the way to the bottom if they put a foot wrong.”
And putting a foot wrong in North Korea means undermining the Kim family.
Besides, the punishment for dissent is so harsh that North Koreans who feel a stirring of rebellion would rather “escape than try to argue for change from the inside.” Partly for dozing while Kim Jong Un was giving a speech, one top official was executed. So, there is no known dissident within North Korea today. And without the chance to strain against the status quo, the country remains in the doldrums of autocracy.
Fifield’s book is principally about Kim Jong Un, the man now at the helm of affairs in North Korea. Her portrait of him is not cartoonish. She writes, too, that Kim is not mentally deranged or stupid, as many are wont to think. Instead, in her telling, Kim Jong Un is calculative, obsessive, ruthless and determined to stay in power. For a leader who rose to power in his early thirties, Fifield believes he has vanquished the expectations of observers who thought the portly figure would buckle under the weight of power. He hasn’t. Instead, Kim Jong Un has been successful in eliminating his self-identified rivals, including his half-brother abroad, completed the North’s nuclear program and forced some of the most powerful leaders in the world to acknowledge him as the legitimate leader of a sovereign state. What remains, perhaps, is how to convince North Koreans that their lives are getting better under his regime. It might be the trickiest challenge to accomplish. The sort of economic flourishing observed in so-called socialist nations like China and Vietnam have come with some sort of liberation in terms of information and capital flows. But the Kim dynasty can not afford to lose control of administrative gamut – the point of capitalism – without ceding much of its mystical authority over millions of North Koreans.
What happens next in North Korea, as with many things concerned with the future, is unknowable. But Fifield’s Great Successor is a remarkable resource for those who want to have a headstart on knowing how things will pan out. ✚
You can purchase The Great Successor here
Elusoji is part of the editorial team at the Question Marker.