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The ruthless rise of North Korea’s Kim Jong Un

Life in North Korea is difficult for outsiders to imagine. A new book attempts to pull back the curtain of opacity as it examines the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un, who took over from his dictator father when his older brother fell out of favor. Nick Schifrin talks to The Washington Post's Anna Fifield, author of “The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un.”

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Ever since the February summit in Vietnam between President Trump and North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-un, U.S. officials say the two sides have not been talking.

    But, today, President Trump revealed he received a letter from Kim. And Mr. Trump also extended an olive branch to Kim, a promise not to spy on him, using his family.

    That news was revealed in a new book out today.

    And Nick Schifrin has that story.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Kim Jong-un has gone from privileged son of a dictator, to mostly anonymous student in Switzerland, to commander of a military with a thermonuclear bomb, to scribe of what President Trump calls beautiful letters to the White House.

    He is only 35, and leads one of the most opaque countries on the planet. Perhaps that's why the CIA recruited his half-brother.

    The book out today reveals that news and tries to makes clear Kim's history and motivations, and also reveals what life is really like inside Korea.

    It is called "The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un."

    The honor — the author is Anna Fifield, The Washington Post's Beijing bureau chief.

    And it's a pleasure to have you. Thanks so much for coming on the "NewsHour."

  • Anna Fifield:

    It's great to be here. Thank you.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Let us start with the news today.

    Kim Jong-nam, Kim Jong-un's half-brother, was providing information to the CIA. That is something that you first revealed. President Trump was asked about that today. He was also asked about a letter that he's received from Kim Jong-un.

    So let's take a listen to that.

  • President Donald Trump:

    I just received a beautiful letter from Kim Jong-un, and I think the relationship is very well, but I appreciated the letter.

    I saw the information about the CIA with respect to his brother, or half-brother, and I would tell him that wouldn't happen under my — under my auspices. That's for sure.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    President Trump saying he wouldn't recruit a member of Kim's family for spying.

    Remind us, who was Kim Jong-nam, what did he provide to the CIA, if we know? And also remind us how he died so publicly.

  • Anna Fifield:

    Right.

    So, Kim Jong-nam was the firstborn son of the North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. So, according to the Confucian hierarchy of Korea, he should have been the successor, the firstborn son. He wasn't.

    He apparently fell out of favor, and he put himself into a kind of quasi-exile after 2001, until his younger brother, Kim Jong-un, became the leader of North Korea at the end of 2011. And then he seems to have really fallen out of favor. He started to publicly criticize his brother in quite oblique terms, but, still, this leader brooks no criticism. And even that was too much.

    And what I discovered in the course of reporting this book was that he had become an informant for the CIA, and that he was supplying information about the regime to American intelligence services. He would meet them in various locations in Southeast Asia. And, in fact, on the day he died, when he was killed in Kuala Lumpur Airport with a chemical weapon here, he had $120,000 in cash in his backpack.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    He was killed by foreigners. That was the first time the North Korean regime had done that and done an assassination like this so brazenly.

    "The Great Successor" is called that, of course, because you mention Kim Jong-un's father, which he — whom he succeeded. And you talk about how the succession was risky, and this crackdown on any dissent, even members of his family, was part of Kim Jong-un's power from the very beginning. And you call him the most Machiavellian leader of our time.

  • Anna Fifield:

    Right.

    So Kim Jong-un was only 27 years old when he became the leader of North Korea. And this family has kept a hold on this country for 70 years by propagating this myth that they are some kind of quasi-deities who have this divine right to rule.

    So he very much gains his legitimacy from this family line, from being the scion of this family. So, he was staking his claim to the leadership, and he wanted to get rid of any detractors, anybody who might rival his claim to be the leader of the North Korean regime.

    And his brother, who had the same divine blood pumping through his veins, was clearly a rival. He dispatched with him. But Kim Jong-un also got rid of his uncle quite early on, in the second year of his regime. The uncle was accused of having too much power or trying to amass power. So Kim Jong-un was very kind of shrewd and ruthless in how he got rid of anybody who could pose a threat to him and his hold on power.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And yet you write how he took power, unlike his father and his grandfather before him, at a young age. Kim Jong-un was so young, and, therefore, he had to do more than survive.

    He had to give — as you put it, give his own people a sense of a better life. And that, in part, led to economic changes and an opening up that we haven't seen before, right?

  • Anna Fifield:

    Very early on, in 2013, he said, North Koreans will never have to tighten their belts again.

    So, first of all, he tended to the nuclear program. Now that that's all done and he has a credible nuclear threat, he's really turning all of his attention to the economy as a way to prove that life is getting better under him.

    So he is tolerating markets on a much greater basis than ever before, and there is a real kind of nascent entrepreneurialism in North Korea, where individual people are able to go out and to trade and make money for themselves and to be more independent of the state.

    That is changing, and it's moving in that direction. And this has given people more freedom from the state and more ability to make their own living.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And Kim Jong-un himself, talk about how secluded his childhood was. And one of your interesting sources, talk about the Japanese chef, Kenji Fujimoto.

  • Anna Fifield:

    So, Kim Jong-un, when he was growing up, didn't have anybody else to play with.

    So when this Japanese sushi chef arrived to make sushi for the royal household, Kim Jong-un seems to have kind of taken a shine to him, as somebody interesting and eccentric and spent a lot of time with him. They flew kites together. He went out fishing with Fujimoto.

    And Fujimoto told me, when I met him in Japan, that he would catch fish from the boat, and then Kim Jong-un would come along and take the fishing pole off him and brag about, "I caught a fish, I caught a fish," and, like, take the credit for this.

    So, he was somebody who was used to being doted upon and having his own way from a very early age.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, fast-forwarding to today, does the boy who was doted on and who claimed to catch fish that he didn't actually catch, is he going to consider giving up his nuclear weapons in talks with the U.S., and is he going to keep talking with the U.S., do you think?

  • Anna Fifield:

    There is no way he is giving up his nuclear weapons. He has put so much energy into this nuclear program, because it gives him a lot of legitimacy in this militaristic regime. It's a way for him to placate the hard-liners.

    Often, something that is not recognized about North Korea is that this nuclear program is a great source of national pride amongst the ordinary people. Even amongst people who defect and don't like the regime, they're still proud that North Korea has managed to develop this nuclear program that South Korea and Japan have not.

    It was in 2011, when he was taking over the leadership, that the Arab Spring was happening, and he saw what happened to Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, who had given up his nuclear program in a deal with the U.S.

    So, I cannot see a situation where he gives it up entirely. But I can see a situation where he gives up something, he makes some gestures. He may give up some hardware, some of these missiles, because I think he does want these diplomatic talks with the United States to continue, because he wants sanctions relief. He wants to grow the economy, and he can't do that while the sanctions are in place.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    An insight into Kim's motivations, into North Korea itself.

    The book is called "The Great Successor." The author is Anna Fifield, the Beijing bureau chief of The Washington Post.

    Thank you very much.

  • Anna Fifield:

    Thank you.

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