Julius Caesar wrote that “All Gaul is divided into three parts.” So too is Anna Fifield’s The Great Successor.
First comes a serious rendition of the economic and social changes that have suffused across the capital and—to a lesser extent—the rest of the country over the last decade; second is an account, linked to the previous discussion, of how Kim Jong Un is attempting to answer the questions posed internally and internationally to the stability of his regime, all overlaid, third, with a patina of farcical fairy tales from Pyongyang.
The first makes the case that the markets, driven by necessity under Kim Jong Il, are now the vehicle of choice for Kim Jong Un to lift living standards for those that matter. With money—and many don’t have it—everything is now available, imported electronics and South Korean “soaps”, anonymity and bad behaviour. Dollars, Euros and RMB are in the North—like in so many other countries—the “get out of jail free” card licensing mischief, trespass and plain illegality. From an equality of misery in the late 1990s with the country hungry and many starving, there is now the misery of inequality with food available, but no longer accessible, as cash eclipses quotas and the Gini Index soars. For most, the days of the Public Distribution Service delivering rations is long gone. It’s reform without opening.
The further shores of Marxism-Leninism have been cast aside. The loss of influence of these twin clairvoyants preceded their portraits disappearance from the face of the Ministry of External Economic Relations in Kim Il Sung Square. Now it’s the power of will rather than the logic of scientific socialism that has the country standing tall. An aura of papal infallibility cloaks the Leader. Each and every doubt as to his survivability has been brushed aside. He comprehensively outmanoeuvred his Regent Jang Song Thaek and preemptively beheaded China’s—and apparently the US’s—”Korean Backstop” as the “heir” saw off the “spare” with the death of Kim Jong Nam. He’s the last man standing.
The Great Successor is an impressive synopsis and drawing together of the current state of play on the Peninsula.
The paradox of the Byungin Line, where the North attempted to simultaneously develop its nuclear deterrent and the economy, was rectifiable. The ICBM test on the 29 November 2017, that demonstrated Pyongyang’s ability at minimum to crash a rocket anywhere in the mainland United States, following on from September’s successful underground test of a hydrogen bomb allowed the North to affirm in the immediate aftermath, “now we have finally realised the great historic cause of completing the state nuclear force, the cause of building a rocket power.” The trials were over and priority could pivot to the economy, while offering to trade away the nuclear programme for serious security guarantees, an infrastructure indemnity and the removal of the UN sanctions regime.
Fifield is right in claiming that it was not “maximum pressure” that brought Kim to the table. It was development, not deprivation, with technological success taking primacy over rust-belt hunger that allowed Kim to restate November’s message of consummation in his New Year’s Address opening the road to the Winter Olympics and his peregrinations to Singapore and Hanoi. The problem is there are still huge linguistic and credibility gaps between the two sides. Pyongyang makes the point that it is not a surrendered country. It has never offered to abandon its space and civil nuclear programmes, rather the opposite: nuclear power featuring as tomorrow’s energy in January’s New Year’s Address. For them, CVID—problematic in itself—stands for Complete Verifiable Irreversible Denuclearisation or Dismantling and not, as “The Great Successor” claims, Disarmament. If the latter is the case, all bets are off. There is a limit even to Kim Jong Un’s carrying capacity.
The Great Successor concludes that post-Hanoi Kim will have no alternative but to come back to the table.
The Great Successor is, overall, an impressive synopsis and drawing together of the current state of play on the Peninsula. Much of the material on markets, reform and the social and generational changes transforming society was covered in Daniel Tudor and James Pearson’s North Korea Confidential, while the unfolding crisis that marched alongside Trump’s elevation to the White House is in Van Jackson’s On the Brink; Trump, Kim and the Threat of Nuclear War.
There are a couple of revelations. The first that Kim Jong Nam was a CIA asset has been well covered in the press. Clearly he was less a source of intelligence—he had little new to tell after decades in exile—and more a putative replacement for his younger brother in a soft regime change that Beijing might have found inviting if Kim’s ongoing nuclear programme had continued to poke the American tiger. The second is that Otto Warmbier’s visit to Pyongyang was rather more premeditated than the accepted narrative suggests. Fifield reports that three Warmbiers—father Fred and sons Otto and Austin—were all booked to go to North Korea with Koryo Tours. In the end, only Otto went switching from Koryo to another company that markets its tours as “destinations your mother would rather you stayed away from.”
The book that, because of its provenance, will be well read by those who have a general interest in the subject rather than specialists and, as a result, my principal reservation is the semi-satirical overlay that undermines the messages at the kernel of the The Great Successor. The subtitle, “The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un”, in a sense says it all. It sounds more like the title of a John Oliver sketch than that of a serious study of a resilient rogue regime: endless pages on Dennis Rodman’s peccadillos, rumours that Kim had spent US$3.5 million on sexy lingerie for his Pleasure Squad—although there was never any evidence for either the Squad or the purchase—and the story that Kim watched his naked uncle torn apart by 120 ravenous dogs. Fifield says it’s “ludicrous”—so why’s it all here?
The Great Successor concludes that post-Hanoi Kim will have no alternative but to come back to the table. Yet the US and the West have constantly under-estimated Pyongyang and the three Kims. The North has been sanctioned virtually from birth a lifetime ago. Provided Kim doesn’t return to tampering with his deterrent, Beijing and Moscow’s goodwill and the resulting interpretation and implementation of sanctions may be stretched to the point where the 5% growth in GDP from 2016 can be reprised in the coming year.
Time will tell if Fifield’s forecast that what didn’t work the first time around, “maximum pressure”, will be inevitably efficacious on a second application.