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Inside the world of North Korea's Kim Jong Un

Few numbers worldwide are more exciting – or more frightening – than the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.

As chief executive, his whims dictate the lives of his country's 25 million citizens. He manages an arsenal of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles that threaten millions of people worldwide.

He performed his uncle for "betrayal." He had got his half-brother murdered with a deadly agent in the middle of a major international airport. He counts Dennis Rodman as one of his closest friends. The US President is "in love" with him.

And he is only 35 years old.

  North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un arrives at the Dong Dang railway station in Dong Dang, Lang Son Province, on February 26, 2019, to attend the second US-North Korea summit.

North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un arrives at the Dong Dang railway station in Dong Dang, Lang Son province, February 26, 2019, to attend the second US-North Korea summit.
Nhac Nguyen / AFP / Getty Images

Since his power after his father's death in 2011, Kim has slowly begun to bring his country out of his decades of isolation. He has allowed some free market economy companies to develop in the country and held dramatic face-to-face meetings with the leaders of China, South Korea and the United States.

He even appeared at a press conference and took actual questions from foreign journalists on live TV – something that would have been completely unheard of a few years ago.

But the man himself remains a mystery.

In a new book titled The Great Sequel: The Old Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un Washington Post Beijing office chief Anna Fifield gives an intimate interior look to the man who has been imprisoned and threatened the world – his pampered childhood, his teenage years studying abroad in Switzerland, his close relationship with his mother and his violent rise to power.

Fifield is an award-winning reporter who has surely covered North Korea better than most journalists in recent memory. And her book is among the most authoritative and comprehensive accounts of Kim – both as a man and as a dictator – this year. It is primarily why I called her up to get a better sense of the man behind the missiles.

An easily edited transcript of my conversation with Fifield is below.

Alex Ward

So who is Kim Jong Un? What does the man cross?

Anna Fifield

His number one goal, what he wakes up to think of every day, is how to stay in power. All he cares about, sticks to his work and holds his family responsible for North Korea. Every decision he makes and everything he does is about the top priority.

So, unlike the stereotype of a crazy, nuclear weapon, he is very strategic and calculates in the way he approached his heritage. From the outset, he has prepared a master plan to improve North Korea's nuclear program and economy.

To be clear, he focuses on the economy, not because he cares about the North Korean people – he has repeatedly shown that he doesn't care about them. Rather, he needs a growing economy to remain in control of his country for decades to come.

Alex Ward

Take me back to the beginning of his childhood. In the book you write it to Kim and his siblings, "life was pure luxury." What you describe – personal chefs, tailor-made clothes, monkeys and cages in cages, all toys imaginable, from pinball machines to video games to four-wheeled vehicles – make him sound like Richie Rich.

Anna Fifield

Yes, absolutely. He was a spoiled brat. He was brought up to believe that he was a demigod from 3 or 4 years, probably as long as he can remember. He got a specially modified car so he could drive it himself at the age of 7 years.

Then was the time when the family's personal sushi chef, who had basically been employed as Kim's friend, took fishing for sea bass with Kim and his brother. Whenever the chef caught a fish, Kim would immediately demand to hold the fishing rod so he could claim he caught the fish himself. He got what he wanted, but he also lived this extremely abnormal life in North Korea, where he was completely cut off from his country and his peers.

And remember, there was famine in North Korea from the time he was about 10 years old – and he probably didn't even know about it since he hadn't had access to extraneous information.

Alex Ward

Kim spent several years and lived in school in Switzerland in 1990s, while in his early teens under a false identity. How has this experience affected him? And why did his time in the West not rub him?

Anna Fifield

There was an idea that Kim would be another kind of leader because he had been exposed to the West. He wanted an idea of ​​what it was like to live in a free world and a liberal democracy, so he couldn't help but be a reformer.

But I think the opposite is the truth. What his time in Switzerland should have taught him is that if it was not for the family myth and family dynasty, he would be a none. He wanted to be another common, lumpy immigrant child who went to school and struggled with his dull homework. In other words, he would not be the demigod he had been raised to be.

So his time in Switzerland was probably only to convince him even more that he should continue the system and rise to the top.

  One of the buildings in the international school Bern in Guemlingen near Bern, Switzerland, the private English-language school, where Kim Jong Un went to school until 1998, depicted on December 19, 2011.

One of the buildings in the international school Bern in Gümlingen near Bern, Switzerland, the private English-language school where Kim Jong Un went to school until 1998, pictured on December 19, 2011.
Harold Cunningham / Getty Images

Alex Ward

Were there any moments From his time in Switzerland, did this view of him crystallize for you? [19659039] Anna Fifield

When he was playing on the nearby basketball court every day after school, others thought he was from Thailand because the Thai Embassy was close by. No one knew how special he really was.

And his aunt and uncle – who were his guardians and posing as his parents while he was in Switzerland – used to go with little picnic-like chairs and sit there to cheer on him. It hit people there so very strange that he had these overly obsessive, overly encouraging guardians. It was very strange, this environment he grew up in. He grew up to be the center of attention and was used to getting his own way all the time.

I'm so reluctant to draw too many conclusions from his childhood, though. We all hopefully matured when we were 12 and we all had bad days of that age.

Alex Ward

You write in the book that he did not speak Swiss German well, and he could not manage to sit in the class himself, that he would kick and spit on his fellow students. It seems he didn't make any mistakes or imperfections at all.

Anna Fifield

He was certainly frustrated at being unable to communicate with his classmates or not only could function. I therefore think he was withdrawn at school.

But he made four friends in Switzerland and he seemed to be open to them. He actually told one of them that his father was Kim Jong Il. Of course, the guy didn't believe him. Still, it turned out that he was able to warm up to people when he wanted to.

What is most indicative of his childhood for me is that he was not a psychopath. He was just a frustrated immigrant child. No one talked about him torturing kittens in the playground or anything, and there is no sign that he is crazy.

Alex Ward

One thing that apparently stems from his childhood is this belief that he is a kind of military genius. You write that as a child he would carry military clothing and bark orders in humans, even adults, and that attitude was going back to North Korea.

Anna Fifield

Right. However, there was no other option for him. His father ran a military first policy, and the military is extremely important in North Korea. The idea that he needed to prove his military chops must have been clear very early.

Also, understand that the part of the way the regime has held power for so long is creating this constant sense of fear and threat if the hostile United States is going to kill them. So he has to portray himself as a military genius capable of defending the country.

One of the really interesting things that I stumbled upon during the study of this book is that so much of his life seems to have been part of his mother's design. His mother, Ko Yong Hui, was this very computational character who wanted both of his sons to turn to Kim Il Sung Military Academy, which is basically West Point of North Korea, to ensure they had the necessary credentials to lead one day and claim the right to succession in North Korea.

Alex Ward

It's really interesting. We know so much about his father when he ran the country for almost two decades, but we almost never hear anything about his mother. What do we know more about her and how important she was in Kim's life?

Anna Fifield

Now his interest in the military and in basketball from her, so she was obviously very important. But his mother was a very ambitious woman herself. Her influence was seen everywhere from her comics, which suddenly began to appear on television, just as the sons were promoted and moved up the line. It was probably much more the mother who decided who was the successor, rather than the boy himself.

Alex Ward

Has he idolized her?

Anna Fifield

Now we have pictures of the two of them together, while there are very few pictures of him with his father and no pictures of him with his grandfather, whom he never met. So he seems to have been very close to his mother.

She was very involved in his upbringing, even when he was in Switzerland, and although she had her public duties as Kim Jong Il's conscience to be aware of. According to Kim's aunt, his mother's sister, they were very close. She was a very practical mother despite these limitations.

  This image of a young Kim Jong Un was doted on by his mother Ko Yong Hui from an official North Korean government documentary on Ko titled

This image of a young Kim Jong Un was doted on by his mother Ko Yong Hui from an official North Korean government documentary on Ko entitled The Mother of the Great Military First Korea ].
Korean Central Television via YouTube

Mother's figure in North Korean propaganda is very important. They call the country the mother country, and sometimes you will hear the leaders – also Kim Il Sung, the country's founder and Kim Jong's grandfather – referred to as "the great moral leader" in Korean.

From very early on, Kim Jong's mother was idolized in the country. There were propaganda and films about her, and recordings published showed her with Kim Il Sung.

So it was very important for Kim Jong's potential increase in power to get this mother figure involved in his life from the start and to show her as a faithful servant to the regime.

Alex Ward

So how does Kim go from being a frustrated immigrant child and beloved son to killing family members like his uncle and half brother?

Anna Fifield

He did not have much love for the people he had killed. His uncle, Jang Song Thaek, had always been aligned with his half-brother's family line, and Jang was close to half-brother Kim Jong Nam, even after the latter entered self-imposed exile.

The uncle played a very important role in the transition period by providing stability and advice while Kim was residing – but it didn't take much for Kim Jong Un to get rid of him.

The few anecdotes I heard were about how Jang continued to treat Kim as a child, even after he took power, just as Jang sent away, Coca-Cola ordered Kim when he hosted Dennis Rodman for dinner after a basketball game. Jang also spoke for a long time at dinner, and people who were there said that Kim seemed to roll his eyes as if to say, "Oh, the old wind bag again," when his uncle spoke.

But there is clearly still a big step to go from thinking, "Ugh it guy, "to get him taken out and shot. From Kim's perspective, however, it was no loss for him to get rid of Jang, because he thus got rid of a rival. It also sent this very strong deterrent message to anyone else in the regime who might be thinking of growing his own power base: I have no compensation to get rid of anyone, even my own family.

And when it comes to the murder of his half-brother, there is no evidence that Kim Jong Nam and Kim Jong Un ever met. So for Kim the manager Kim was just another person, just another rival that could be disposed of.

Alex Ward

Many analysts have pointed out that Kim has gone out of his way to look like his grandfather, from his haircut to the suit's style he wears and straight down to his great stomach. But does he really try to imitate his grandfather when it comes to his behavior and how he operates the country? Or is he just trying to look like him while chartering his own way forward?

Anna Fifield

He follows a lot after his grandfather. To date, even some of the shortcomings I spoke with in South Korea and China still have a great admiration for Kim Il Sung because they connect him to the good times in North Korea – when they had allies in the world, and then the North Korean economy was better than the South Korean economy (until around 1975). And of course, the North Koreans still have much love for him.

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Both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Un appear to be much more gregarious and outgoing characters. They both enjoy being out and talking to people. In the meantime, Kim Jong Il was just an oddball: He was very introspective and did not enjoy socially or interacting with outsiders. He only spoke publicly once for 17 years, and he expressed a single sentence.

While Kim Jong Un, he's out there talking to people all the time and giving speeches and things like that. So I think he has much more of the charisma that his grandfather had.

Alex Ward

One of the most fascinating things you talk about in your book is Kim's relationship with his wife Ri Sol Ju. I think most Americans probably don't even know that Kim was married in 2009 – or that he has children for that matter. Can you tell me more about his wife and the role she plays in her life?

Anna Fifield

She seems to have a very moderate influence on him. In North Korea there has never been a formal first lady, so it was in itself revolutionary to suddenly get this young, glamorous, well-dressed woman by Kim's side. It did a lot to show him as a young, modern millennium leader.

She would have been recognizable to every North Korean because she was the leading singer of this highly known song group. She was always on North Korean television and middle stage, so they would have known exactly who she was when she came out.

And much like Kate Middleton in the UK when she came out, she was able to soften her husband's image a little, make him seem a little more accessible and really prove a PR gift.

  Kim Jong Un and his wife, Ri Sol Ju, visit Mangyongdae Revolutionary School in Pyongyang to plant trees with his students in March 2017.

Kim Jong Un and his wife, Ri Sol Ju, visit Mangyongdae Revolutionary School in Pyongyang to plant trees with its students in March 2017.
Korean Central News Agency via KNS / AFP / Getty Images

A story I heard was so early in Kim's government, the couple went to the opening of a of amusement parks that Kim had ordered to be developed in the country as part of his strategy to appeal to his generation – the generation that could potentially support him for 30 or 40 years.

All these foreign diplomats had been invited to the opening of the park – the cameras were there, it was a really big show. A British diplomat even went on one of the rides and sat a row in front of Kim. At some point during the trip there was some kind of malfunction and it stopped moving. According to people who were there, Kim began to cook and of course became very angry that everything had not gone smoothly during this event.

And apparently his wife walked over to him, spoke quietly to him, and just calmed him down. Everything was decided and they all went on. As far as we know, all the event survived.

Alex Ward

Between his mother, his wife, and his sister Kim Yo Jong, whom we haven't talked about, Kim seems to really trust women to help him rule. It is not a usual feature among stronger ones.

Anna Fifield

You're right, it's not a common feature. However, his father also relied heavily on his own sister, so the idea of ​​supporting sister's role is not entirely new to North Korea.

But Kim Jong's sister seems to be really good at her job as an advisor, diplomat and general employee. It also helps that she is Kim's blood – a clean, 100 percent blood related. That means she can trust as very few other people. More than just about everyone else, she has an interest in continuing the system she enjoys.

The striking thing is that none of these women could ever be the leader in themselves. They have their role – whether it's the glamorous wife or the organizing sister – who supports Kim Jong Un and makes him look good and make sure there is nothing unfortunate. But they never lead themselves.

  President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un sign documents such as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (R) and North Korean leader's sister Kim Yo Jong (L) looking at a signing ceremony during their US-North Korea Historic Summit Summit at Capella Hotel on Sentosa [19659107] President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un sign documents such as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (R) and Kim's sister and advisor Kim Yo Jong (L) looking at a signing ceremony during their historic US-North Korea summit at the Capella Hotel on Sentosa Island in Singapore on June 12, 2018. </figcaption><cite>  Saul Loeb / AFP / Getty Images </cite></p>
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