Episode 10 of the Lowy Institute’s new podcast, Rules Based Audio, is out today. In Socialist Paradise: North Korea under Kim Jong-un, the Washington Post Beijing bureau chief and author Anna Fifield talks about how the strange, closed country is changing under its young leader. And she argues the dictator’s grandson, who few thought would last a year in the job, has surprisingly proved a ruthless, adept and confident leader and diplomat, forcing China and the US to the table without giving up anything.
Since he came to power in 2011, Kim has successfully nuclearized the isolated country, met with a US President, and permitted some marketisation of the economy. Ordinary North Koreans still live with a government radio nailed to the wall, blaring propaganda at all hours; but some have been able to eke out a better living in the new state-sanctioned markets where, Fifield reports, you can now buy anything from a DVD player to a Dyson vacuum cleaner.
Political crimes, such as being caught with a USB drive featuring South Korean soap operas, still see people sent to brutal labour camps in the mountains. Yet these days, at least for the new class of millionaires and other wealthy urban dwellers in Pyongyang, there are gleaming apartment towers, yoga classes and craft beer bars.
Anna Fifield is the author of the new book The Great Successor: The Secret Rise and Rule of Kim Jong-un. She has been to North Korea over a dozen times, and interviewed hundreds of escapees from the country, including tracking down members of the Kim family and former inner circle living in exile.
Now the Post’s Beijing bureau chief, she was the paper’s bureau chief in Tokyo from 2014 to 2018, covering Japan and the Koreas. She’s originally from New Zealand, and worked for many years for the Financial Times, reporting from almost 20 countries, including Iran, Libya and North Korea.
Rules Based Audio is a half-hour, fortnightly podcast covering stories from the cracks and faultlines in the global order, hosted by Kelsey Munro and powered by the Lowy Institute.