If you’re tired of hearing about Michelle Obama Becoming a modern-day saint and you’ve grown weary of overpriced New Age tracts on self-improvement, there’s another book about becoming something a little darker – with a much worse haircut – that may pique your morbid curiosity.
This book is about becoming a North Korean dictator. It’s called Becoming Kim Jong Un: A Former CIA Officer’s Insights into North Korea’s Enigmatic Young Dictator, and is written by former CIA analyst and current Brookings senior fellow Jung H. Pak. The non-fiction analysis was published at the end of April and takes a look at Kim’s background, rise to power, and underlying motivations. It is alternately insightful, informative, hilarious, and disturbing.
The book is scarce on specific information on Kim’s childhood and upbringing, because there aren’t many sources apart from his former sushi chef Kenji Fujimoto who escaped to Japan several decades ago on a trip to buy sea urchins, and the one and only Dennis Rodman.
Despite the relative lack of intimate biographical depth, Pak’s book succeeds eminently in portraying the complexity of Kim: at once a coddled man-child and privileged pretender and simultaneously a brazen and savvy geopolitical operator and blackmailer. She effectively demonstrates how Kim is making ruthless and – so far – effective use of the “infrastructure of terror” inherited from his father and grandfather. Pak also outlines how the Kim regime is creating a self-contained internet and technological sector that only increases his government’s control rather than opening it to the outside world.
Examining the troubled history of the Korean peninsula and the rise to power of the Kim family, Pak brings to bear her skills as an intelligence analyst and emphasizes lessons she learned about questioning one’s assumptions and reassessing answers that fit too neatly into simple narratives. The temptation to see Kim as simply a crazy maniac must be resisted if we are to glean useful insights into what’s driving him, according to Pak.
The North Korean calendar begins in 1912, when Kim Il Sung was born. He later rose to notoriety leading units of Chinese and Korean fighters in the 1930s. They killed Japanese soldiers and police in occupied Manchuria. Sung eventually ended up in the USSR, where he became a captain in the Red Army and was later put in charge of North Korea by Josef Stalin after the end of the Second World War.
Korea’s 1948 division and the ensuing horrors of the 1950-53 Korean War have defined North Korea’s perspective ever since. The Kim regime calls the war “the Fatherland Liberation War,” and for North Korea it is an event of mythical significance in which brave patriots fought barbaric and soulless Yankee devils who will strike again if they are not held at bay.
For Kim – as for his father Kim Jong Il and grandfather Sung – the guarantor of domestic regime security and foreign policy sway is the state’s nuclear weapons program, which, Pak notes, “gave this tiny country strategic relevance on the international stage.” By alternating “provocation and diplomacy,” Kim, like his father and grandfather, is continuing what has been a remarkably successful strategy – for the regime, at least, although not so much for the majority of oppressed and malnourished North Korean people.
Tracing back Kim’s roots, Pak details his polygamous father Kim Jong Il’s drunken sex parties with underage girls and his eventual romance with Kim’s mother, a Japanese-born dancer who entranced the cineaste leader. Raised in a lavish lifestyle shuttled between villas and time on beachside resorts in Wŏnsan, Kim grew up ensconced in the privilege of being Il’s third wife’s son and later attended an expensive boarding school under a pseudonym in Bern, Switzerland. His main interest at school – where he was reportedly an average student – was basketball, and he used to frequently draw pictures of Michael Jordan in class.
One of Kim’s former teachers described him as a “friendly, gentle, young Asian boy who struggled to form close relationships with his peers because of the language barrier.” The book has no word on whether this teacher has since amended his or her opinion.
Pak details how Kim became choice number one for future leader and provides chilling details of his time languishing in boarding school while the 1995 to 1998 famine killed 600,000 to 1 million North Koreans, with many who survived eating tree bark, snakes, rats, and grass. Instead of feeding its people, the regime poured money into bolstering its military first policies and sustain its luxury lifestyle.
Since rising to power in 2011, Kim – who was born in between 1982-1984, depending on who you believe – has proven to be a formidable, savvy, and ruthless leader. Some of the most fascinating passages come as Pak looks into Kim’s 2013 execution of his uncle Jang Song-thaek, whom the regime accused of plotting a coup and whose competing “patronage networks” and attempts to get control of valuable resources like coal were a threat to the Kim regime. The oddest detail provided is that the Jang situation apparently reached a boil after North Korea’s military failed to seize a profitable crab and clam fishery from Jang and fighters loyal to him.
Discussing the hints of free market activity that have broken out in North Korea by quasi-legal means and smuggling, Pak describes the “Byzantine arrangement of bribes” that keep the hobbled economy afloat as families outside the capital scrabble for survival and seek protection from local authorities in return for payoffs. Meanwhile, in the rich areas of the capital Pyongyang, dubbed “Pyonghattan,” connected citizens sport the latest gadgets and fashions as they hail taxis and eat high-priced seafood.
Further passages outline the regime’s barbarous 2017 murder of Kim’s half-brother Kim Jong Nam at an airport in Mayalsia using two hapless prostitutes as patsies to smother VX poison on Nam’s face. The two allegedly thought they were doing a prank for a reality TV show and were released from jail last year. Rather than being random, the Kim Jong Nam assassination shows North Korea moving into even more dangerous territory as it seeks to humiliate and eliminate rivals and critics and try out its extensive biological and chemical arsenal.
The details of North Korea’s actions become truly bizarre at times, with Pak listing reports of their foreign diplomats and military officials making money for the regime and taking their own cut via a wide range of tactics including counterfeiting U.S. currency, smuggling weapons, gold, rhino horns, and exotic animal products, selling knockoff Viagra and illegal recreational drugs like meth, insurance scams, renting out embassies for events like proms, and butchering beef in the embassy basement in India and other countries where it is hard to get and can fetch a premium price.
The book does not get into the case of Otto Warmbier, who was murdered by North Korea after his arrest in 2016, but does mention his parents once. Pak discusses North Korea’s frantic response to the comedy movie The Interview and explains why the “cultural bomb” contained in the mockery of the film was a bridge too far for the regime, whereas 2013’s Olympus Has Fallen about elite North Korean forces attacking the White House with bloodthirsty zeal was just fine with Kim and Co.
Pak goes over the regime’s hack of Sony and desire to upgrade cyberattack capabilities in response to the film, which they called “an act of terrorism.” The film went off without any of the 9/11-style attacks North Korea threatened, but many theaters shied from airing it.
North Korea has about 6,000 hackers and support staff in countries like India, China, Mozambique, and Kenya who are working within those nations’ networks to train and wreak havoc on foreign nations, particularly on South Korea. These hackers have hit the South’s banks, private companies, and government departments, totaling almost $650 billion in damages since 2010.
Gaps of Knowledge
The most disturbing parts of this book are its passages describing the hundreds of thousands in North Korean prison camps and gulags who are subject to torture, starvation, rape, and endless hours of work. According to Pak, women who become pregnant are routinely forced to abort, including by groups of men standing on a plank on their stomach or officials pushing a stick up their vaginal canal to kill the unborn baby.
Fetuses who are born are suffocated alive, while others are thrown in the garbage or fed to camp dogs. North Korea’s policy is to “kill the seed” of disloyal subjects up to three generations removed from the original offender.
The book may go one step too far for some conservative readers and invite controversy in its attempt to draw an extended parallel between Kim and President Donald Trump’s “man of the people” anti-elite elitism, but frankly, apart from the distastefulness of comparing a brutal, sadistic dictator under almost no constraints with a democratically elected national populist whose executive power is infinitesimal in comparison, Pak makes an interesting point here.
She writes that both are highly focused and hostile to a perception of being laughed at or mocked, obsessed with the idea of national strength and dominance, shaped around the idea of being a powerful masculine individual fighting for the people and both were raised in privileged backgrounds that were male-dominated.
Pak writes that Trump has a “transactional zero-sum view of foreign relations and national security,” and compares this with Kim’s own us-against-the-world viewpoint and obsessive conviction that North Korea is the target of unfair persecution and accusations. Both are competitive, confident, focused on masculinity, prone to blistering trash talk, unpredictable, aggressive, and believe their own lies – which is what made them both uniquely and counterintuitively suited to the near-breakthrough moment of the Trump-Kim summits in Singapore and Hanoi, according to Pak.
The only shortcoming of this book is that it, like everyone, is simply quite light on detailed information about Kim or his upbringing. Becoming Kim is heavy on analysis of North Korea and its geopolitics and internal repression but light on biographical color.
In some ways, the book leaves a gap roughly the size of a pudgy, basketball-loving dictator, which is still an impressive feat for Pak to have accomplished. As Pak herself acknowledges, “there are still lots of unknowns and gaps in our knowledge,” including “Kim’s personal health and habits” and numerous other details about North Korea. It is also likely possible that classified material was available that Pak was not authorized to include.
As for solutions, Pak cautions not to read too much into Kim’s 2018 and 2019 meetings with Trump and to look at the situation as a whole in terms of Kim wishing to pivot toward diplomatic gambits, boost regime prestige through meeting with the POTUS, and keep China on his side.
Pak’s main takeaway in terms of solutions is simple: Kim won’t give up his nukes because he – like his father and grandfather – sees them as his familial and national ace in the hole that will see him and his government go the way of Muammar Gaddafi if they give them up. North Korea doesn’t want peace on Western terms, but it also doesn’t want all-out war. It also doesn’t want economic and cultural change that will expose the regime to widespread revolt as free market reforms take place.
Instead, Kim’s policies show that North Korea is still pursuing a strategy of Korean reunification on its own terms, in which it will use its wildcard status and the suffering of its people to continually up the ante and try to force the situation in its favor. Pak suggests holding intensive talks between South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia but cautions that a first strike from the United States on North Korea would be ill-judged and could lead to nuclear war.
According to Pak, the United States should also use covert and overt methods and stop the regime from cutting corners and profiting despite sanctions. She also urges that North Korea be held responsible for its human rights abuses and bypassed as much as possible with information directly to the people that will force the regime to become “more responsive to internal pressures” and potentially lead to proactive and positive economic and social change in the future.
Still, change will take time, and “we should expect more aggressiveness from Kim,” according to Pak.
In the end, Pak’s book is about as good a portrait as one could expect of the leader of the Hermit Kingdom. If it falls short on details about Kim Jong Un, that’s understandable. At least until Dennis Rodman gets around to writing a biography, this is as close as we’re going to get to understanding one of the world’s most dangerous and inscrutable leaders.