North Korea, Without the Hacks

Most US reporting on North Korea is inaccurate fluff produced by self-serving careerists. But a new book finally shows how to do it right.

Kim Jong-un attends the joint press conference at Paekhwawon State Guesthouse on September 19, 2018 in Pyongyang, North Korea. (Pyeongyang Press Corps / Getty Images)

Most US reporting and writing about North Korea is saturated with intellectual frivolity. In the murky waters of North Korea reporting, journalists and writers have been flouting fact-checking and common sense in favor of self-dealing and careerism.

In his now-discredited best seller of 2013, Escape from Camp 14, American journalist Blaine Harden devoted an entire page to the tale of how North Korean defector Shin Dong-hyuk had to crawl over the body of a friend electrocuted on a high-voltage fence to escape Camp 14, the country’s most notorious gulag. Harden did not explain how Shin himself was not instantly electrocuted in this scenario. However, Shin was a petty criminal, not a political prisoner, and could not have escaped Camp 14 because he has never been jailed there.

In another best seller on North Korea, Without You, There is No Us, Korean-American author Suki Kim depicted herself as an investigative journalist who went undercover as an English teacher at a Pyongyang college to study the lives of the North Korean elite’s youth. But she was never as incognito as she claimed.

On day one in Pyongyang, Kim was greeted by a minder who had accompanied her on her previous visit to the country. The mystique around her time in North Korea is supported by the impression that visiting openly as a writer would have been a huge risk. But before her time as an English teacher, Kim was already well-known for her best-selling debut novel, The Interpreter, and had visited North Korea twice already. North Korea would understand the global firestorm of criticism it might create by detaining or deporting a best-selling American author.

This, of course, isn’t to say there are no concentration camps (there are many) or that there is freedom of the press (there is none) in North Korea. But the mendacity of these authors helped to sell their books to gullible Americans — at the cost of the ordinary North Korean people who the authors claim to care deeply for.

That’s why Anna Fifield’s new biography of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, is so refreshing. Fifield, the Beijing bureau chief of the Washington Post, has collated what is probably the current maximum of what can be known about the leader of a secretive, nuclear-armed state. Nevertheless, it is a fine piece of journalism. With more than two decades of experience in covering the two Koreas for the Financial Times and the Post, Fifield doggedly sifted through primarily- and secondarily-sourced information and fact-checked to create a fair and unbiased portrait of Kim. In an environment where the US debate over North Korea is most often defined by hysterics and saber-rattling, a balanced account like Fifield’s is crucial. It’s also a reminder that there is more to North Korea than its nuclear weapons. Whether its economic and political structure can support the country’s working class should also be of interest to socialists. Fifield’s account gives us insight into both.


As Fifield notes in her book, North Korea’s economy was actually larger than the South’s until the mid-1970s. Indeed, out of the ruins of the 1950–53 Korean War, North Korea staged a spectacular economic recovery. It sounds surreal now, but in the late 1950s to mid-1970s, average North Koreans were fed and sheltered better than their Chinese or South Korean neighbors.

North Korea’s postwar expansion was possible thanks to the country’s mobilization of both natural and human domestic resources; plus fraternal aid from China and the Soviet Union. Fifield aptly explains that the North Korean government’s claim that it achieved complete self-sufficiency conveniently overlooks its dependence on its Cold War benefactors.

That said, North Korea was neither a Chinese vassal nor a Russian satellite. Fifield raises this point several times but does not dwell on it. Kim Il-sung, the grandfather of Kim Jong-un, rebuilt the economy with Chinese and Russian aid, but often, in defiance of their will. In 1956, during a virtual coup later called the August Incident, he purged pro-China and pro-Russia factions from the Workers Party of Korea for their attempt to prioritize light over heavy industry at the advice of their communist sponsors. For Kim, a North Korea without its own industrial base would be doomed to dependency on China or the Soviet Union. He asserted that the country needed to develop both light and heavy industries simultaneously.

In September of that year, the Soviet Union and China jointly intervened to undo the purge by sending Nikita Khrushchev confidante Anastas Mikoyan and Korean War–era commander of the Chinese People’s Volunteers Peng Denhuai to Pyongyang.

Kim emerged triumphant not just because his nationalist slogans rallied young cadres. China and the Soviet Union could not unseat Kim from power because their mutually increasing rivalry meant they could not agree to an alternative to Kim who would simultaneously suit their different needs.

Kim Il-sung consolidated a mostly self-sufficient socioeconomic system that ran on domestic resources, while playing the two communist superpowers off against each other over their rivalry in the region. In parallel, he expurgated any possible domestic dissent that might undermine his position with respect to the two allies.

After the purge, Kim Il-sung introduced the concept of juche, or self-reliance, as the guiding ideology of the country. A personality cult began to rise, laying the groundwork for Kim’s one-man rule, which, over three generations, morphed into one family’s hereditary rule.

The outcome of the August incident still has reverberations on the mindset of Kim Jong-un who has shown zero tolerance for any externally linked dissent. The grandson of Kim Il-sung executed his China-connected uncle and once regent, Jang Song Thaek, and engineered the public assassination of Kim Jong-nam, his self-dealing half brother with CIA ties.

Implosion Foretold

Woefully absent from Fifield’s book are the details of how North Korea slid into famine in the early 1990s. The North Korean socioeconomic system was based on a contradiction: it needed a strong self-sufficient base in order to have the leverage needed to manipulate the Sino-Russian rivalry to its advantage. This meant an increasingly unsustainable exploitation of its natural and human resources.

This contradiction became evident in the agrarian sector by the early 1980s. North Korea became a net importer of grains from China, which sold grains and fuel at a socialist fraternal price, far below market value. North Korea is not an ideal place for food sufficiency. Before the division, the North was an industrial hub that depended on the South, the granary of the peninsula, for grains. Only 16 percent of North Korea’s mountainous surface is arable, and weather conditions are harsh and cold. None of the North’s technological advances could make up for these inherent limits.

Any attempt at improving agrarian productivity took its toll on the environment and human life in the form of overexploitation of arable land and longer and more intensive working hours. By 2011, a UN report said, “As soils degraded due to attempts to boost productivity, yields started to decline.  More and more fertilizers were needed to maintain the production level and more and more pesticides were needed to control pests.”

The entire economy was subject to this self-enforcing vicious cycle in the agrarian sector. Meanwhile, the country’s near-exclusive dependence on domestic coal and hydroelectric power left the energy sector vulnerable.

Thus, the North Korean famine of 1994–96, which the New York Times said left more than two million dead in 1995–1998, was not caused solely by the deluge of a warm El Niño weather pattern.

Internally, North Korea was imploding because of the way it had built and run its socioeconomic structure. Years of soil degradation meant large portions of soil no longer held together. Deforestation for the country’s ubiquitous rice paddy terraces had left much of its surface vulnerable to landslide. Industry was brought to a stop as flooding disabled already-dilapidated hydroelectric plants and inundated coal mines. Food rations discontinued. Externally, there was no communist ally left to provide fraternal assistance. The Soviet Union had collapsed. China had embarked on market reforms and was preparing to join the World Trade Organization, which penalizes its members for unfair trade practices such as fraternal pricing.

Expediency of Staying Power

North Korea was an industrialized economy, where urban residents outnumbered rural ones. In modern history, no industrialized economy grounded to a halt as phenomenally and abruptly as did the North.

The North Korean state should have collapsed at least two decades ago. But it still stands where it has been in the past seven decades due to a combination of mutually conflicting domestic and international factors.

In the aftermath of the famine, there was a tacit consensus among the North’s foes and friends alike that a North Korean collapse would be a nightmare unleashing all sorts of trouble into the region, from a refugee crisis to a runaway military machine. They kept North Korea above the famine line, with humanitarian aid. When it was not applying sanctions, the United States was the largest contributor to the World Food Program for North Korea up until 2006. But U.S. aid discontinued in 2008 as North Korea continued to step up the development of nuclear weapons.

Nuclear Weapons: Multipurpose Insurance Policy

The consensus of shoring up North Korea was an expedient one. In a famine-stricken, desperate country, any political change from within was out of the question, leaving the Kim family and their small cohort in control. Probably, more importantly, any substantial political change could not be injected into the North without entirely recasting the post–Cold War political landscape of Northeastern Asia, where economic and military interests of the two Koreas, the United States, China, Japan, and Russia began again to promiscuously cross. In the post–Cold War 1990s, China was growing exponentially. However, it was still far from having the same weight as Japan economically or the United States politically in Northeastern Asia. Japan was sliding into a decade of economic recession, later termed the Lost Decade. Russia was wrestling with its irreversibly declining influence on the region. For South Korea, the specter of a collapse-induced reunification was a prohibitively expensive one that would ruin its burgeoning economy. For all these countries, North Korea was a liability. The United States had little incentive to sway the regional pollical balance already tilted in its direction.

In this context, nuclear weapons were and are a multipurpose insurance policy for Kim Jong-un and his cohort. The nuclear capacity of the North has already placed the continental U.S. within its fire range. However, North Korea will not nuke the United States or Japan or South Korea for that matter, because retaliation would be instant and deadly.

Rather, the nuclear weapons are an invincible bargaining chip to play foes and friends off against one another to gain the most — in the same way North Korea did during the Cold War with its communist allies. They provide the young leader’s legitimacy as a military leader among his enormous army. They are the reincarnation of once-diminished national pride among the North Korean people. Indeed, North Korea has enshrined itself as global nuclear power in its own constitution.

Fifield concludes that for these reasons North Korea won’t likely abandon its nuclear weapons. Or at the very least, it won’t give up them in a single big deal, as the United States has been pursuing for two decades. A denuclearized North Korea will be the result of careful and committed diplomatic efforts, like those initiated by South Korean president Moon Jae-in, that may well last more than a decade. Kim Jong-un won’t surrender his nuclear bargaining chip until it becomes irrelevant to the game of international relations.

Kim Jong-un’s New Normal

Domestically, the North Korean elite began to adapt to the post-famine situation by 1999. Kim Jong-il, the father of Jong-un, at first condoned the ad hoc markets that sprang up nationwide, where people bartered their necessities. The government often looked the other way as small-scale trading and smuggling began to flourish with China. When the government tightened control over the markets and trades, newly emerging merchants bribed their way around it.

Living standards improved, though they never recovered to pre-famine levels. However, some North Koreans — especially those with connections to the government and the party — became richer than others. All North Koreans became better off when they got around or curbed their once omnipotent state — in their unprecedented confirmation that there was an alternative to the state’s monopoly and dysfunctional ration and health care systems.

It was under Kim Jong-un that these markets became fully allowed. The once scattershot network had become too important to the economy to be eliminated or subdued. Now donju, or wealthy money lords, have emerged to control increasing numbers of mines, factories, and even real estate. Much of their network is lubricated by briberies and kickbacks, with “everyone jockeying to show his or her loyalty to the regime and amass more economic power.”

In a chapter called “The Elite of Pyonghattan,” a portmanteau of Pyongyang and Manhattan, Fifield vividly depicted how the children of state bureaucrats and donju, the North’s 1 percenters, enjoy their life, sipping cappuccino and gobbling up on fresh sushi while much of the country struggles to stay above the famine line. As one North Korean defector said, “They say North Korea is a socialist country, but when I gave birth, I had to bring the rubber gloves and the drip and the syringe and the meals for the doctor and everyone else on staff.”

Evidently, the 1 percenters are Kim Jong-un’s constituency. For them, life is good and will likely be better under Kim. But what about the remaining 99 percent? They are now experiencing a new form of inequality and corruption while they want to not just survive but also thrive. Their economic and political expectations and hopes are higher than any point in the history of North Korea. While pointing to the fact Kim Jong-un learned about the French Revolution at his Swiss boarding school, Fifield asked, “Political scientists will talk today about the potentially destabilizing effect of rising expectations going unmet. Does the Great Successor remember these lessons?” Just as Fifield argued, the future of Kim Jong-un does not depend on how he bargains over his nuclear weapons but lies with how these 99 percenters will react when he fails to meet their expectations.