Tracking the man behind the myth of Kim Jong-un
He is one of the world’s most instantly recognizable figures, but frustratingly little is known about the North Korean leader
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the hugely anticipated summit between the US president and the North Korean leader will be the close-up glimpses the world will be offered of one of the most iconic, but opaque leaders on the global stage.
His appearance and style may make him a figure of ridicule, but the fact that Kim Jong-un is meeting with the world’s most powerful man makes clear that he heads one of the most dangerous states on earth.
Observing Kim’s every move in Singapore with a particularly keen eye will be Sebastian Falletti, author of the just-published La Piste Kim: Voyage au coeur de la Coree du Nord (On the trail of Kim: A voyage into the heart of North Korea).
Falletti states convincingly that Kim is not a madman, but a smart and rational player who has charm and charisma. His ruthlessness, while enabled by the dictatorship that North Korea is, may be psychologically driven by early traumas and betrayals, and his health may be fragile.
Kim has brilliantly broken out of last year’s international isolation, and shares similar formative experiences and a mutual fascination with United States President Donald Trump – which suggests that something unprecedented – a personal relationship between US and North Korean leaders – could be on the cards.
The mysterious Kim the Third
For a decade, Falletti, Asia correspondent for Le Figaro, has been sifting through Kim-related rumor, hearsay and fact in locations spanning the China-North Korea border, Guam, Osaka, Pyongyang, Seoul, Tokyo, Shanghai and Washington, interviewing everyone from defectors, wonks, intelligence agents and officials. With North Korea being Asia’s biggest news story, Kim “hijacked my existence” the author said.
The first mystery was who would succeed Kim Jong-il, who suffered a stroke in 2008 (he would die in 2011). Seoul, where Falletti landed in 2009, was simmering with rumor and speculation. “Everyone was looking for pictures,” he recalled. “We were all in the dark.”
In 2010, he visited Pyongyang with fellow reporters one week before a major party meeting, where a new leader was expected to be revealed. “Everyone expected that he would be revealed, we all harassed our minders about this, and they were paranoid and stressed,” Falletti said. “It was totally sealed off.”
Then, in the bar of his Pyongyang hotel, he got talking with one guide, a student. “As my editor said, ‘In this job, luck is a professional skill,’” Falletti said. “So, I tried my luck!” He asked her, “Does Kim Jong-il have a son?” He was flabbergasted at her response: She replied that he did, that he was a young general, that her college had been teaching about him – there was even a song about him.
“That really spooked me,” Falletti recalled. “The entire world and the CIA were guessing about it, and this student told me that everyone in Pyongyang is learning about him! This showed me how the system was capable of keeping a critical secret.”
One week later, Kim’s name appeared in state media.
Falletti’s informant terminated the interview by laughing and telling him that what she had said was just a joke. The incident gave Falletti sympathy – and admiration – for North Koreans.
“We look at [North Koreans] as robots but my experience is that, yes, they are brainwashed and are in a system, but they maintain some form of individuality,” he said. “They are not stupid or lack individual critical thinking, but for us, in free societies, if we make a mistake we may be in trouble for a while. There, you make one mistake, you can pay a huge price. So, they are constantly doing these mental gymnastics.”
Childhood betrayal, survival, ruthlessness
Some media characterize Kim as a lunatic, but Falletti sniffs at this analysis, based on Western-centric perceptions. “First, there is his appearance: He is overweight, so is an unsettling figure for Western audiences where hipsters are obsessed with slim silhouettes,” the author said. “He sounds like a spoiled brat, and he has challenged the US, and done more ballistic missile and nuclear tests than his father, so he sounds reckless.”
In actual fact, Pyongyang’s elite is coolly rational. “They are super-realistic people, it is a super-realistic political system,” Falletti said of Kim and his close circle. “When it comes to international relations, they are very rational, as their lives are at stake … [for them] the Gadaffi case is not theoretical.”
This overriding priority sharply focuses political thinking. “The North Korean leadership has an easier task than [other global leaders], as they don’t have conflicting priorities,” Falletti said. “Their main focus is on how to not get crushed by big powers, how to survive. And they have been very successful.”
Assuming power so young in a culture where age matters, and with so little experience in a dangerous regime, many pundits expected him to struggle to establish himself, or even to become a puppet. They were wrong. “He has been able to impose seemingly total control on the top leadership and get rid of potential competitors,” Falletti said.
He reckons Kim was far better prepared for leadership than pundits give him credit for. Kim is known as “The Marshal” to his people and is believed to have undertaken security service and army training – the latter at the country’s military academy.
Yet Kim is incessantly demanding US security guarantees. This could stem from deep personal insecurities, Falletti believes. Kim trusts very few people, notably his older brother Jong-chol and younger sister, Yo-jong. From very early on, the three faced an uncertain future: they were born not of their father’s wife, but of his mistress, dancer Ko Yong-hui. All three were educated in exclusive Swiss schools – but this was no “golden exile,” Falletti said.
In the 1990s, dire reports from North Korea painted pictures of a murderous famine and portrayed their father as a dictator. Predictions of collapse were rife. Then their guardians in Switzerland – their uncle and aunt from Ko’s side – defected to the US in 1998. Their mother died of cancer in 2004. This combination of circumstances bred a sense of vulnerability.
“The aunt who raised you defected to the enemy, so even though he was a spoiled kid, a prince, he experienced treason – it’s like reading Machiavelli!” Falletti said. “Psychologically, it was a tense teenagehood. These traumas bonded the siblings.”
Once Kim became the third generation of his family to take power, more betrayals followed: from long-term regime insider Jang and half-brother Jong-nam.
Jang was executed, apparently for attempting to build his own economic empire (possibly with Beijing’s support). Jong-nam was assassinated in Malaysia (possibly due to alleged plans to defect to South Korea; possibly due to his contacts with the United States).
Kim instituted what has been dubbed a “reign of terror.” “The level of purges in [his] first few years was high – unprecedented since the 1950s,” said Falletti. “Kim wanted to show he was the boss. He made a lot of high officials afraid.”
Kim’s removal of Jang was particularly theatrical: He was arrested in a politburo meeting. “You are showing everyone who is the boss: This is like a cabinet meeting and suddenly the police break in and take you out,” Falletti said.
Now, Kim has taken full control. “It could have worked out with Jang, he could have had a more collective, collegial leadership,” said Falletti. “But he wants to concentrate all power.”
Other family confidantes are Kim’s almost entirely unknown elder half-sister, Seol-song, believed to be a key behind-the-scenes player, and his wife, Ri Sol-ju, a former dancer believed to be a savvy investor, who Kim married at his father’s suggestion.
The chubby charmer
Still, Kim has a brighter side. Unlike his hermit-like father, who only ever spoke in public once, he has cultivated a beaming public persona. “His father was extremely smart but liked to be in a closed circle; he hid from the masses, wore shades, was mysterious,” Falletti said. “Kim seems much more open, more relaxed physically, embracing people.”
Those who have met him say that Kim (like many dictators) oozes personal charm: he is chummy, humorous, sarcastic and enjoys eating and drinking. South Koreans were bowled over by his charisma and turn of phrase during his April summit with President Moon Jae-in. “I would say he is strong-willed, self-confident, ambitious and maybe capricious,” Falletti summed up.
Youthfulness – Kim is believed to be 34 – enables long-term vision. “Different to leaders in democratic countries, he can project himself long-term,” Falletti explained. His vision so far has been centered around byungjin, a policy line that combines nuclear weapons ownership with economic development. However, questions hang over his personal sustainability.
Family genes are sub-par: His grandfather suffered from a hideous tumor; his father was diabetic. Kim first gained weight in order to emulate the look of his revered grandfather, Kim Il-sung, and may have engaged in bodybuilding to bulk up and look more imposing, Falletti said. But stockiness turned to obesity around the time of the execution of Jang. That was possibly due to stress, Falletti surmised; possibly due to lack of time to lift weights.
He is a heavy smoker. Journalists covering the April inter-Korean summit noted how out of breath Kim looked after ascending a ten-step flight of stairs. “[Kim’s health] raises a huge question mark for the future of the regime,” Falletti mused. “Who would replace him?”
Playing China, playing America; and the Trump-Kim connection
Having consolidated his leadership and largely completed his strategic arms programs, Falletti believes Kim is now moving to “stage two” of his reign: Stabilizing the Pyongyang’s international relations. And he is doing it very, very well, Falletti reckons.
“He played Xi and Trump – this is the playbook of his grandfather, who played Mao against Stalin: He got the invitation to meet Xi thanks to the invitation to meet Trump, and now he knows that if he does not get a deal with Trump, Xi has his back” Falletti said. “He was in a corner six month ago, totally isolated; now he has managed to get tete-a-tetes with the two most powerful leaders in the world. That is already an achievement.”
Falletti also pointed out that Kim and Trump share commonalities that extend far beyond their alpha-male personas and last year’s back-and-forth of braggadocio and insult.
The world knows the emotive nature of Koreans from South Korean TV dramas and films, and North Koreans – a people who many journalists and NGO workers find delightful in their naivety, sincerity and curiosity – share this trait.
“One source told me, ‘North Korean people need love,’ and he was talking about emotive life; they need attention, they are Korean,” Falletti said. “A lot of this is emotion and respect; if you give them attention, they give you more than you thought.”
For this reason, Falletti thinks that the precedent-busting Trump – whose personal interest in North Korea long predates his election – has a better chance of striking a deal with Kim than his conventional presidential predecessors.
“He is genuinely interested in Kim, because of their similar family backgrounds: Both are the second son of an empire, a dynasty, and were not supposed to be the successor. Trump has an elder brother, but he showed his father he had balls, he had determination. Kim is the same: He showed, through his temper, that he was the man.” (Kim’s elder brother is believed to be an artistic, genteel character – hence their father’s decision to place the tougher Jong-un on the throne.)
“One is a business dynasty and the other is a political dynasty, and they are both tough places: New York for real estate; Pyongyang for politics,” Falletti continued. “Even before he was elected, Trump had genuine respect, and from the North Korean perspective, that is a huge difference: ‘The US president has a real interest in me.’”
The possibility of a bromance between a North Korean leader and a US president is a radical new factor in the equation, Falletti believes. Trump is a deal maker who would “enjoy a potential lunch or dinner with Kim, that is his way of doing business and building relationships” Falletti said. “This is very Asian, very Confucian – personal relations.”
A relationship with Washington is critical for Pyongyang’s long-term future, the author added, for Kim must balance the powers surrounding him. “China is big, North Korea is small, and if they follow the Chinese model, China will submerge them,” Falletti said. “This is where you see the strategic vision: if they want to keep their identity, they cannot open the gate totally, especially to China, they will be a drop in the ocean.”
This may explain why Kim has (so far) not made North Korea’s customary demands for a withdrawal of US troops from South Korea. “It is the interests of North Korea to keep some US presence,” Falletti said. “But in the propaganda, they will never say it.”
Yet, at the end of his investigative odyssey, Falletti admits that much about North Korea and its charismatic but cruel leader remains mysterious. “Today, in this connected globalized world there is a place where we have to say – and not be ashamed to say – ‘we don’t know.’ This is what makes North Korea exciting to cover: It is the last big story!”