A journalist experienced in
reporting from Asia penetrates the secrecy of North Korea about as well as
Fifield, the current Beijing bureau
chief for the Washington Post and
former Tokyo chief for that publication, focuses on Kim Jong Un, the third
consecutive leader from the same family to subjugate the citizenry since the
partition of Korea after World War II. The author has no direct access to Kim Jong
Un (very few do), who was only 27 when he succeeded his father as supreme leader.
Because of the outlandish and relentless North Korean government propaganda
about the divine origins of the family’s three generations, treating the
leaders seriously can seem like an exercise in dishonesty. In addition, the
cartoonish physical appearance of Kim Jong Un often gives rise to cruel satire.
Refreshingly, Fifield avoids the temptation to treat him less than seriously.
Despite his presiding over a police state, the malnutrition of most North
Koreans, the bluster, and the “decrepit kleptocracy that was his inheritance,” Fifield
understands that the young despot has improved conditions for the citizenry.
Partly due to the spotlight that President Donald Trump has shined on him, the
North Korean dictator has received sustained attention on the global stage, a
phenomenon that the author documents beyond the superficial daily headlines.
Most of Fifield’s sources have justified reasons to despise the North Korean
family dynasty, but her strong journalism skills allow her to separate the
wheat from the chaff of biased sources. At times, she brings herself into the
narrative, but she does so judiciously. There is some comic relief with the
entrance of such odd characters as former professional basketball player Dennis
Rodman, who “loved the adulation he received” when he visited North Korea. Fifield
is also good at explaining the personal obsessions that define Kim Jong Un’s dual-level
dictatorship, with the top level reserved for the North Korean supporters upon
whom he has bestowed lavish wealth.
A compelling mix of biography,
cultural history, and political intrigue.