RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
When Kim Jong Un emerged as the new leader of North Korea in 2011, it was a mystery to many in the Western world. To others, he was a punch line. Even some North Koreans didn't buy the hype.
ANNA FIFIELD: Some people in the more far-flung regions that I spoke to who - they said that they kind of choked a bit when they heard that he had been named the successor. And some of the myths that were created around him - so for example, that he could drive a car and shoot a gun when he was 5 years old.
MARTIN: That's the voice of Anna Fifield. She's a correspondent with The Washington Post who's been reporting extensively on North Korea and the Kim family. Her new book is called "The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny Of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un." In it, she follows how Kim Jong Un bested his siblings to become the leader of North Korea. At one point in the book, Fifield reveals how Kim's older half-brother ends up becoming an informant for the CIA, which could've cost him his life. He ended up murdered in a nerve agent attack in 2017. But Kim's rise starts much earlier. As part of her research, Anna Fifield travelled to an elite boarding school in Switzerland.
FIFIELD: I walked around his school. I sat outside the apartment where he lived. And I looked through the curriculum from the time that he was there so I could get a sense of what he had studied during that time. And it was this very kind of liberal Swiss curriculum, where all the students learned about tolerance for different kinds of people, about democracy and freedom and happiness and choosing your...
MARTIN: The French Revolution.
FIFIELD: The French Revolution.
MARTIN: The people overturning the leadership.
FIFIELD: Exactly. Every single student in Switzerland learns about the French Revolution, so I often wonder whether Kim Jong Un was paying attention in those classes and whether he thinks about that today, of making sure that the peasants don't revolt.
MARTIN: It's impossible to know how much Kim took away from his experience in Europe. But after 7 1/2 years ruling North Korea, there are no longer any doubts about whether he can hold onto power.
FIFIELD: There's been a tendency to view him as a joke - you know, because of his weird haircut and his, you know, funny photo opportunities that he seems to have a lot of - that he's been this kind of cartoon character villain. But what I wanted to show with this reporting is that he has, in fact, been a very shrewd and calculating and ruthless dictator. He has been a good dictator. He's done his job well. He is not a nut job, as President Trump memorably once called him. In fact, to treat him as a joke is really to underestimate the threat that he poses to the outside world and to the 25 million people of North Korea.
MARTIN: Why did he see the nuclear program as being so integral to North Korea's success?
FIFIELD: I think he knew that at the beginning, he - you know, he came into power. He hadn't served a day in his life in the military, so I think he needed to burnish his military credentials from the get-go to keep all of the real generals in the regime and the people who keep the regime intact - to kind of placate them in a way and to give them this very - you know, the ultimate weapon. And also, it's a very powerful deterrent to fend off anyone who might want to strike North Korea, aka the United States. So it served two purposes in that way.
And one thing, I think, that is often not recognized about North Korea is that this nuclear program is actually a great source of pride to many North Korean people that has stoked this kind of sense of nationalism amongst even people who have told me that they hated the regime. I spoke to one physics student who was at university. And he really, you know, couldn't stand the idea that Kim Jong Un was going to take over, but he felt very proud that North Korea had been able to achieve something that South Korea and Japan had not.
MARTIN: It reveals a sort of emotional intelligence on the part of Kim Jong Un - doesn't it? - to understand that having pride in something like a nuclear program would eventually work to his benefit.
FIFIELD: Yes, it does. It does show, you know, some kind of understanding there, I think - I mean, and - by the same way that he's now managed to turn on the charm with various world leaders that he's met over the course of the last year and a half to show that he is capable. I mean, it's all an act, I think. But he's capable of turning on the charm and winning people over.
MARTIN: Did the summit with President Trump in Singapore substantively change anything?
FIFIELD: It did change a lot for Kim Jong Un inside North Korea. All of these summits, whether it's with Xi Jinping in China, Vladimir Putin in Russia, you know, the South Koreans, all of it has been great for his legitimacy inside North Korea. He's been able to present himself as an equal to the, you know, the most powerful leaders in the world. And so this bolsters his claim, again, to be the, you know, the right leader for North Korea and for him to be able to say that he has achieved something that his father and his grandfather before him did not.
MARTIN: Toward the end of the book, you mention Kim Jong Un's health and concerns around it. What do you know?
FIFIELD: People often ask me what the biggest risk to Kim Jong Un and his regime is, and I say his health. You know, he seems to be fully in control of the regime there, but his health looks like a pretty big risk. We know that he has had some health problems. He disappeared from view for about six weeks in 2014 and returned with a cane. So for a man who's 35 years old, he certainly does not appear to be thinking about his longevity, shall we say.
MARTIN: You say that he is a good dictator despite concerns about his leadership by many when he assumed power. What must Kim Jong Un do to make sure that a fourth-generation Kim continues the dynasty?
FIFIELD: I'm sure that is something that is weighing on his mind because there is no clear successor to him now. Even if he does have a son, I think, you know, this is - he's going to be a child. He's not going to be ready for the leadership for 25 years or something. But we can imagine that behind the scenes, Kim Jong Un must be thinking about this but probably not doing more than thinking because he certainly doesn't want any rival for power.
We think that is why he got rid of his uncle. He had him very publicly thrown out of the regime and then executed. He also dispatched with his half-brother in a very, you know, brutal way, with a chemical weapon in Kuala Lumpur airport. So he doesn't want anybody too close who could rival his claim to be the legitimate leader of North Korea, but I'm sure that he is thinking about perpetuating this family business.
MARTIN: Anna Fifield, Beijing bureau chief for The Washington Post. Her new book is called "The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny Of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un."
Thanks so much for talking with us, Anna.
FIFIELD: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.