Listen

'The Great Successor' Ventures Inside Kim Jong Un's North Korea

Jun 11, 2019
Originally published on June 12, 2019 12:37 pm

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross, who's off this week.

In her new book, our guest Anna Fifield says that North Koreans don't celebrate their own birthdays, just that of their leader, Kim Jong Un. In fact, she writes, for many children, it's the only time they'll ever get a present. Fifield, who's been reporting on East Asia for years, has visited North Korea a dozen times and interviewed many of its citizens, including members of Kim Jong Un's family. Her book is a fascinating look at the background, character and personality of Kim Jong Un, as well as a picture of life inside North Korea today and an insightful look at the leader's volatile interactions with Americans, from President Trump to Dennis Rodman.

Anna Fifield began her career in journalism in her home country of New Zealand. She's reported from more than 20 countries and was The Washington Post's Tokyo bureau chief from 2014 to 2018, focusing on Japan and the Koreas. She's now the Post's Beijing bureau chief. Her new book is "The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny Of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un."

Well, Anna Fifield, welcome to FRESH AIR. You've been a foreign correspondent for a lot of years and reported on a lot of countries in Asia - some with autocratic regimes, some more democratic. Is reporting on North Korea different from all of them?

ANNA FIFIELD: Yes, it definitely is. I have also reported previously from countries like Iran and Syria and Libya under Moammar Gadhafi. And nothing comes close to what it's like to report in North Korea. So on my trips to North Korea - you know, often when I arrive, I don't even know where I'm staying. Everything is organized by the state once I get there - you know, where I eat, where I go, who I talk to, kind of what streets we go down on the way to get there. So it's all very highly choreographed so that I only see what they want me to see.

But having said that, I do find a lot of utility in going to North Korea because it's a Potemkin village. And the Potemkin village has changed over the years since I first started going in 2005. So it's interesting to see the kind of messages that they are projecting.

So I remember very distinctly in one year - it was February. It was the middle of winter. And they took me to the very best hospital in Pyongyang, the Red Cross hospital. And I walked in there and I had my huge Gore-Tex coat on and things. And I was freezing inside the hospital. There was no electricity. There were patients lying in the beds. You know, you can't run medical equipment or whatever you need in a hospital without electricity. So that in itself was very telling to me - that the best hospital in North Korea didn't have electricity.

DAVIES: Let's talk about Kim Jong Un. You know, to understand him - one of the things I get from your book is that you have to understand his family. His grandfather, Kim Il Sung, was the first in this ruling dynasty in North Korea. Tell us about him, how he came to power.

FIFIELD: Kim Jong Un's grandfather was Kim Il Sung. And he was born into a Christian family - a Presbyterian family. His grandfather was a minister. So this is when Pyongyang was still considered the Jerusalem of the East. And his family moved to Manchuria - northern China - during the Japanese occupation to fight against the Japanese, and this is where the legitimacy of the Kim family comes from. So after 1945, when the Korean peninsula was divided and Japan was defeated at the end of World War II, it was then that the Soviet Union installed Kim Il Sung to be its kind of puppet president in North Korea and to do its bidding - that was the idea.

And Kim Il Sung very much played up the idea that he was this anti-Japanese, you know, anti-American revolutionary who would lead North Korea on to great things. And, you know, the personality cult started very early on in a way that surprised even the Soviets. They had a very strong Stalinist personality cult going on at the time too. And they began sowing this myth about the Kims, that they were uniquely qualified, they were kind of given a divine right to lead North Korea. And during the Kim Il Sung years, that kind of worked because the North Korean economy was strong and North Korea was in relatively good standing with China and the Soviet Union looking after it.

Things didn't really start going downhill until the late '70s, when the economy started coming off the rails and then the collapse of the Soviet Union and the transformation of China. But the family still harks back to these Kim Il Sung days. Kim Il Sung died in 1994 and his son, Kim Jong Il, took over at that time.

DAVIES: It is interesting that the North Koreans adopted this cult of personality that was seen in the Soviet Union of, you know, deifying a leader and putting images of him everywhere with big posters. The Soviets kind of abandoned this in the 1950s. But the North Koreans kept it right on through to the current leader, haven't they?

FIFIELD: That's right. I mean, they kept it going and on steroids. You know, it's impossible to turn a corner, practically, in North Korea without seeing a big billboard or a big picture of the leaders. I mean, to this day, every single public building, every school, every office, every subway car, has a photo of Kim Il Sung and his son, Kim Jong Il, in it. And also, every house is required, every apartment is required to have these portraits too. And not just that, but there's a special cloth that is kept in a special box to clean these portraits. And there are inspections to make sure that you're properly looking after them. So it's really hard to exaggerate just how pervasive and strictly enforced this personality cult is.

DAVIES: So Kim Il Sung dies in 1994 and the next ruler is Kim Jong Il. He was a son of Kim Il Sung, right? So how was he different from his father?

FIFIELD: He was very different from his father. His father, Kim Il Sung, was a very kind of charismatic, gregarious kind of person. He seemed to get a real kick out of travelling extensively around the country and talking to his adoring subjects. Of course, they were forced to be adoring. But you can tell that he did seem to enjoy this, and people responded to him.

Kim Jong Il came along, having been anointed the first successor there. And he was very introverted. He didn't seem to take naturally to this job. In his entire 17 years in power, he spoke in public only one time, and even then it was only one sentence, which was at a military parade. So he was a much different character from his father.

But he also took over control of North Korea at a very difficult time. So the Soviet Union had just collapsed a few years before. China was well on its way to becoming the economic giant we see today. But also, a famine was taking grip of North Korea. And over the rest of the '90s, as many as 2 million people actually died of starvation from that famine. So he is very much associated with those bad and difficult times.

DAVIES: So Kim Jong Un, the current leader, was a son of Kim Jong Il. And you spend quite a bit of time in the book talking about his formative influences. And it helps to get a sense of how the Kim family lived - I mean, the wives and other relationships that he had. What kind of lives did the wives - the extended family live in North Korea?

FIFIELD: Right. So Kim Jong Un was the third son of Kim Jong Il. He was the offspring of the fourth relationship that Kim Jong Il had. He had many consorts and wives and partners of various descriptions. So each of these families lived in its own cloistered existence in North Korea. Kim Jong Un never knew his older brother Kim Jong Nam, who was the first born son - and, you know, technically according to North Korean and Confucian hierarchy, he should have been the successor.

But he never lived with him. He lived in an entirely different compound in North Korea. He never knew him. He lived isolated in this residential compound with his older brother and younger sister, so he had a very unusual and dysfunctional upbringing. He didn't go to school. He had private tutors who came to the house. He didn't have any friends. He didn't play with other local children. He just had his brother and his sister to play with there.

So he had a very strange childhood where he grew up believing that he was this very, very special princeling. And at the time when other people in his country were starving to death - literally - and, you know, struggling to survive, he lived a life of absolute decadence, where they were fed imported food and French pastries and salmon brought in from overseas. And he had Lego and all sorts of Nintendo kind of toys at that time. So he had a very unusual upbringing in North Korea.

DAVIES: Right. And he lived in Switzerland for a few years going to school. You talked to people who knew him there. What did they say about him?

FIFIELD: That's right. When he was 12 years old, he joined his older brother in Switzerland in the capital of Bern, where his older brother had been living with his maternal aunt and uncle. And first of all, he enrolled in an English language private school. He spent two years there learning English or learning in English, and then he transferred to a local German language school in his neighborhood.

So when I went, I visited the apartment where he lived in, which was a very ordinary apartment complex in, you know, a suburb of Bern that is - there's nothing special about it. And he went to a school that was - it's a public school very close to his apartment where he basically had three or four friends, all the children of immigrants. He hung out with them and kind of kept to himself.

People at that time said that he was quite reserved. He had - did have trouble communicating with them because of language difficulties. But even once he became conversant in German, he was still quiet, kind of shy and had difficulty communicating. But his one great passion was basketball. So every day after school, he would head down to the high school courts there, and he would shoot hoops and play with other local kids. They didn't care who he was. They thought that he was Thai, actually, because the Thai Embassy was close to that high school.

And so there, he was just able to be kind of a relatively normal kid except for the fact that there were adults, you know - Koreans who sat there in deck chairs keeping score and being kind of excessively complimentary whenever he did well.

DAVIES: Yeah. It's fascinating to think about the impact on a kid of learning at a very early age that he is the anointed one. You describe his eighth birthday party. What was that like?

FIFIELD: That's right. For his eighth birthday party, he was presented with a little general's uniform - you know, an olive green uniform with gold buttons and epaulets and things. And he was told that he would be the successor of his father. So at this birthday party, which was attended by officials and actually real generals from the Korean People's Army. You know, they were bowing to him, and the generals were saluting him and treating him as if he would be the heir to his father one day.

And his aunt, who was present at that birthday party, told me that, you know, from that point on, it was impossible for him to act like a normal child, that he was - you know, had the sense of entitlement and was treated in this very fawning way. So he grew up expecting, you know, to be able to give commands.

DAVIES: There's this lovely little detail you have about going bass fishing on a boat, I guess, with his father. And you got to know this chef; Fujimoto, I believe, was the name of this guy who'd spent years with the family. When he would catch a fish, Kim Jong Un would what - he would - what? He'd hold up the fish and say, hey, look what I caught?

FIFIELD: That's right. So he would go out fishing in a boat with Fujimoto and his mother and his brother. So Fujimoto is a very strange character in this household. Like, he left booming Japan to go and live in North Korea and make sushi for the royal family there. And he was kind of assigned to be a buddy, a playmate - that's what he called it - to Kim Jong Un because these kids had nobody to play with, nobody to hang out with.

So he would take them out fishing on the boat, and every time he caught a fish, Kim Jong Un would grab the fishing rod away from him and say, look what I caught and, you know, be all excited about it. And of course, everybody would humor him and say, you know, well done; aren't you clever. So these are obviously quite small anecdotes, but I feel like they are quite illustrative of the environment that he grew up in, the sense of entitlement and how special he felt as a child.

DAVIES: Yeah. You know, people talk about narcissistic personality disorder. I mean, I'm not a psychiatrist; you aren't, either. But you've got to wonder what is the effect of years and years, from the age of 8, being told that you were, you know, practically infallible.

FIFIELD: Yeah. Well, I did actually go and talk to a bunch of psychiatrists and psychologists, some of whom have - one of whom had consulted for the South Korean intelligence service about this, and they say, yes, that he does show signs of narcissism. They do say, you know, it's impossible to diagnose somebody from this kind of distance. But the thing that stands out to them is the fact that he does not appear to have a disorder as such. Like, there are no reports from his time in Switzerland or in growing up in North Korea that he was torturing kittens or acting in any kind of, you know, psychopathic kind of way.

So they say that he did grow up with a sense of entitlement, but it was just that. He's not a nut job, as the president of the United States might say it. But they said - one thing that I found really interesting was that - you know, to go back to the, you know, the old cliche about power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, that there is kind of a chemical reaction that occurs on the brain, where you get a hit of dopamine when you are powerful like this, and it can become kind of self-perpetuating and that you crave this kind of power.

So one psychologist I talked to said that this is probably how Kim Jong Un justifies the brutality that he shows to himself so that he continues to get this hit, chemical hit, of power.

DAVIES: Anna Fifield is the Beijing bureau chief for The Washington Post. Her new book about North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is called "The Great Successor." We'll be back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOACIR SANTOS' "EXCERPT NO. 1")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Anna Fifield. She is currently the Beijing bureau chief for The Washington Post. She spent many years reporting on the Korean Peninsula. She has a new book about North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. It's called "The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny Of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un."

So when he becomes the leader, he's pretty young. What is he, 20 - in his mid-20s?

FIFIELD: Twenty-seven.

DAVIES: OK. He's in a world where, you know, weakness is likely to be exploited among the elites of the country. Did he arrive on the scene with a willingness to be tough? How did he consolidate his own power?

FIFIELD: Yeah, so when he arrived, he was 27 years old, which is, you know, young anywhere but extraordinarily young in the system that prizes age and seniority. So for example, the man who is currently the titular head of state in North Korea - he was the foreign minister in 1984 when Kim Jong Un was born, and now he serves in this regime. So he was serving this guy at 27 years old.

When he came in, he did have a lot of help with learning the ropes. He had his uncle, whose name was Jang Song Thaek, who was thought to be something of a regent at the time and helping him learn power. But there were also other people who had served in his father's regime and even his grandfather's regime who were there to help guide him through. Many of those actually walked around the hearse with him at his father's funeral.

But pretty quickly, once they had served their purpose of helping him attain power and consolidate his role, Kim Jong Un has gotten rid of almost every single one of them. I mean, most dramatically, he had his uncle - Uncle Jang - hauled out of a politburo meeting very publicly. And then he was executed for amassing his own power - you know, having too much power and acting as a rival to Kim Jong Un. So he's been very calculating and ruthless in the way that he has used the people and, once they've served their purpose, dispatching with them in the most gruesome way.

DAVIES: Yeah. Is it true that he had someone shot with antiaircraft weapons?

FIFIELD: Yeah, there is intelligence to suggest that is true, that the person who was basically the defense minister was taken out and, in front of an audience of other senior officials, was reduced to a pulp with antiaircraft fire. And so obviously that's a very gruesome thing to do, but that's the point of it. That's what Kim Jong Un wants people to see because if you've just seen somebody reduced to a pulp like that, chances are that you are not then going to question Kim Jong Un and his authority.

DAVIES: So Kim Jong Un takes control of the country, I guess, around 2010, 2011, right? It's a country that's been operating with international sanctions. Most of its trade is with China. The economy over the years was pretty dysfunctional. It's, you know, centrally planned. But it seems, as you write, that things have changed, that there is more economic flexibility and perhaps better living standards for some. What did you find?

FIFIELD: That's right. I mean, it has changed a little bit or to varying degrees depending on which part of North Korea you're looking at. But during the famine in the 1990s when the state could no longer provide food for the people, they had no choice but to allow a little bit of trading across the border and to allow people to fend for themselves or to grow corn which they could sell or whatever. So that was the beginning of market capitalism in North Korea - very, very tiny change then.

But that has grown over time and has exploded under Kim Jong Un. So there are now more than 450 private markets in North Korea spread around the country where people - they rent stalls off the state. They pay taxes to the state, and they sell their goods. So some people may be importing rice cookers or clothing or even French perfume from China, which they will sell in the markets. Other people are making, you know, rice cakes at home and selling them outside or cutting hair.

There's a real market economy and a sense of private entrepreneurship in North Korea now. And that is something that Kim Jong Un hasn't exactly encouraged, but he has tolerated it. He has allowed this to happen because it has enabled people to earn a better living for themselves and to experience an improvement in their living standards, which then of course he takes the credit for without having actually really done anything at all.

But this is quite dangerous for him because with all those goods that are coming in from China, information comes in, too. People can go back and forth if they're trading. They see what China is like. They bring back USB drives full of South Korean soap operas and Chinese action movies that people then watch. That's technically illegal in North Korea, but many, many people have seen these kinds of things. So they are trying to balance allowing people to earn a better living for themselves while not allowing so much information to come in that it might be destabilizing for the regime and the method it's created around itself.

DAVIES: Anna Fifield's new book is "The Great Successor." After a break, she'll talk about the level of government surveillance and political repression in North Korea. And we'll hear about a raucous party on the Great Leader's yacht during one of Dennis Rodman's visits to North Korea. There was booze and karaoke, and hits by James Brown were a favorite. Also, Maureen Corrigan reviews a new novel by Jill Ciment she calls both smart and disturbing. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GET UP (I FEEL LIKE BEING A) SEX MACHINE")

JAMES BROWN: Fellas, I'm ready to get up and do my thing.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Go ahead. Go ahead.

BROWN: I want to get into it, man, you know?

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Go ahead.

BROWN: Like a - like a sex machine, man.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Yeah.

BROWN: Moving, doing it, you know?

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Yeah.

BROWN: Can I count it off?

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: Go ahead.

BROWN: (Singing) One, two, three, four. Get up. Get on up. Get up. Get on up. Stay on the scene. Get on up like a sex machine. Get on up. Get up. Get on up. Get up. Get on up. Stay on the scene. Get on up like a sex machine. Get on up. Get up. Get on up.

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. We're talking with Washington Post Beijing bureau chief Anna Fifield about her new book on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. She's traveled to North Korea a dozen times and has interviewed many of its citizens, including members of Kim Jong Un's family. Her book is called "The Great Successor."

What's the level of surveillance and repression that ordinary people feel - political repression?

FIFIELD: It's really hard to overestimate how repressive North Korea is. You know, there is no official access to any outside information. There is no Internet in North Korea. There is no, you know, Samizdat literature. There's no Solzhenitsyn of North Korea. There's no graffiti in North Korea. It's very, very cracked down in terms of information that people can get from the outside world. And I think this is the biggest reason why the North Korean regime has persisted for so long - because it is so repressive.

If you are caught with foreign media or saying anything even slightly negative or questioning about Kim Jong Un and his regime, the punishment can be extremely severe. So for example, if you were to criticize Kim Jong Un for spending all this money on his nuclear program when people can't even feed themselves in North Korea, that's the kind of political crime that could have you, the perpetrator, and two other generations of your family - so maybe your parents and your children and also your spouse - consigned to a reeducation camp for maybe 10 years, maybe the rest of your life, depending on the severity of the so-called crime.

And this is how North Korea keeps people from speaking out. Because while you may be willing to criticize the regime and take the punishment from that, is anybody going to be willing to risk, you know, their parents' and their children's future and freedom as well? I mean, generally, the answer is no. And defectors who I've spoken to have said to me that, in North Korea, if you objected to the system, you don't try to change it; you try to leave. Like, that is the outlet for that - you try to escape the repression, rather than get rid of the repression.

DAVIES: And is there a structure to encourage people to spy or inform on their neighbors?

FIFIELD: Absolutely. Anybody in North Korea could be an informant. And the way that this whole system is structured is to create that. So at a household-level, there are neighborhood groups of about 40 households, always led by a busybody middle-aged woman whose job it is to keep tabs on everybody in her unit. And there's a joke in North Korea that that woman knows how many spoons you have in your kitchen. Like, she knows so much about you and how - your life, she knows how many spoons are in your kitchen.

There's that household aspect of it, but then, within every workplace, every school, every government department, there are also groupings there where people are supposed to go and embark on self-criticism sessions, where they will criticize themselves for maybe not being a devout enough follower of Kim Jong Un, or they will also be encouraged to rat on other people there.

So there is this real system set up to encourage people to tell on other people like that and to win brownie points for doing so. But also, you know, the level of surveillance in terms of technology - and there are cell phones now in North Korea, but there's software in them to be able to keep tabs on what people are doing. The whole system is designed to spy on everybody at every turn.

DAVIES: And I was stunned by this fact - every house has a radio on its wall that can't be turned off or tuned to another station? It's the government station.

FIFIELD: That's right, yeah. Every house has - I've seen this radio and actually taken a video of it one time, when I went into a showcase apartment. It spouts political propaganda all the time. The dial cannot be changed. The volume can be turned up and down but never off. So there is really no escaping the system.

DAVIES: And do we know the scale of labor camps or reeducation centers - how many people, how big they are?

FIFIELD: We don't know for sure. But the estimates are something between 120,000, maybe as many as a quarter of a million people are housed in these camps. We can see from satellite imagery that they continue to exist and, in fact, that they have been consolidated under Kim Jong Un, so you - when you look from the sky, you can see the barracks where people are kept. You can often see the mines where people are forced to work next to the camp.

So these camps still continue to exist. They are, you know, really, really cruel places where people are forced to work for hours on end, with very, very little food and with very little prospect of release, if you're in one of the most severe political prison camps.

DAVIES: Kim Jong Un is clearly a man not to be trifled with. I mean, he can be ruthless. And one of the most dramatic stories involves the murder in an airport of his half-brother Kim Jong Nam. Remind us of that, and tell us what was the point of this.

FIFIELD: Right. So it was February of 2017, and Kim Jong Nam, who had been living in kind of quasi-exile for a couple of decades almost by that stage, he was standing there at the airport check-in counter when he was suddenly attacked from behind by two young women who smeared a chemical weapon called VX on his face. That's a really gruesome way to go. It absorbs through a person's mucus membranes, and he died within 20 minutes of this being applied to his face; it just shut down all of his lungs and his heart, stopped the muscles from working in them.

And this was very surprising, partly because it was so brazen and so public. That's not usually North Korea's modus operandi. And also, it was conducted by two foreign women - one Indonesian and one Vietnamese - whereas previous ones had also been done by North Korean agents. But this was really intended, I think, to send a message to anybody who might criticize Kim Jong Un and the regime to say, you know, wherever you are, we can get you. You know, we can get you in a public place, and you'll die this really gruesome death, and people will be powerless to stop it.

But the reason that he specifically had his older brother assassinated in this way is because he viewed him as a rival to the leadership of North Korea. His older brother had been living outside the country, like I said, for almost two decades and showed really no interest whatsoever in taking over this family business. But from the North Korean point - or Kim Jong Un's point of view, he had created this whole myth about himself and his family lineage; it's called the Paektu bloodline - Paektu was this holy mountain in North Korea that they said that the family descends from. So his older brother, male heir to the dynasty - he could also technically claim to have the Paektu blood running through his veins if he wanted. So it seems to be that is the reason why Kim Jong Un had his older brother taken out - to remove somebody who may possibly be able to stake a claim and to become a rival as leader of North Korea.

DAVIES: Anna Fifield is the Beijing bureau chief for The Washington Post. Her new book about North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is called "The Great Successor." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SLOWBERN'S "WHEN WAR WAS KING")

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Anna Fifield. She's currently the Beijing bureau chief for The Washington Post. She spent many years reporting on the Korean peninsula, and she has a new book about North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un. It's called "The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny Of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un." You know, Kim Jong Un is young enough to hold power for a long time. There are questions about his health. What kind of shape is he in?

FIFIELD: He is in not great shape. I mean, we can see just looking at him, he has gained an awful lot of weight since he took over. And at the beginning, this was all about looking more like his grandfather, like he was a big man. And Kim Jong Un does look a lot like him, and a lot of people were reminded of the good old days of Kim Il Sung when they see him. But he has gone much beyond what he needed to do there.

A lot of South Korean doctors had analyzed him and his health after he started coming out to these summits. We saw him planting a tree with the South Korean president who's, like, twice his age. And the South Korean president had no problem doing it, but Kim Jong Un was, you know, heaving, struggling for breath. We saw him also struggling for breath in Vladivostok recently when he was there meeting President Putin. So they have said - these South Korean doctors have counted the number of breaths he takes per minute and, you know, tried to estimate his weight and things. And they've said that he does seem to be suffering or at risk from conditions like gout or diabetes that - you know, heart problems could be an issue for him.

So I think, you know, this is probably the biggest risk to the North Korean regime - would be his health and that - yeah. He does not seem to be in good shape for a 35-year-old man.

DAVIES: A heavy smoker, too, right?

FIFIELD: Heavy smoker, yes. His wife actually made a quip during a dinner with the South Koreans about how she tried to get him to give up smoking, and he wouldn't. I mean, and this - you know, there is a serious aspect to this as well, I think, that - it shows, in a way, how powerful and untouchable Kim Jong Un is, because he must have doctors and people who are in charge of him who would, you know - you would think be advising him to take more care of his health and to lose some weight. But he's gone in the opposite direction. He's obviously not listening to them or they are unable to tell him these kind of hard truths.

DAVIES: You know, when we think about developing a more productive relationship with the North Korean regime and even conceivably offering some economic assistance, you know, people come up against the brutality of this government. There was the story of Otto Warmbier, the young man who went into a coma - was held for so long. I mean, how do you evaluate this regime in terms of just the sheer level of brutality and repression in considering how to deal with it on a diplomatic level?

FIFIELD: Right. This regime has been, you know, extremely brutal and repressive for decades now. And while human rights people, of course, publicly criticize this and call for change, you know, nothing has changed there in North Korea. So I think, you know, trying to deal with the country and encourage it to change and to open up could lead to some alleviation on the human rights side of things. And I think that human rights could be brought into the conversation and be made part of these nuclear and economic discussions to push for relief for North Korean people and for changes there on that front. I mean, so far, there has been very, very little, if any, progress on human rights in North Korea.

DAVIES: You've been to the country 12 times. Do you have a fondness for the place?

FIFIELD: I have a fondness for the people of the place. And what I have tried to do in the course of my reporting is to show the humanity of North Korean people because, I think, you know, we see so little of them. And Kim Jong Un is such a kind of cartoon character kind of leader. I mean, he is mocked in the outside world as being this crazy dictator. And I think there has been a tendency to view the North Korean people as kind of brainwashed robots of that system - to view them as, you know, little Kim Jong Uns, and they are anything but. You know, many of them that I have spoken to know that this whole system is based on lies. They have, you know, very little affection, if any, for Kim Jong Un and his, you know, father and grandfather. They know the truth, but they are just busy trying to get ahead and, you know, make ends meet, as people around the world are as well, you know? They are concerned about getting a better education for their children, about making sure that their children have a better life than they have.

So with my reporting, I've tried to show what their life is like in North Korea - you know, how they cope in the system, how they protect their children in the system - you know, to show that these people of North Korea - the 25 million people of North Korea are victims of Kim Jong Un. They are not, you know, his little robot army in there - and that these are the people that he is threatening on a daily basis. It's not just about his nuclear program threatening the outside world. It's about the daily threat to his own compatriots.

DAVIES: There've been tensions between the United States and North Korea for a long time. And during the Obama administration, there were, you know, thoughts about how to create an opening. And then we saw these trips by Dennis Rodman, the former Chicago Bulls basketball player who's covered in tattoos and piercings and is known for outrageous behavior. How did this happen?

FIFIELD: Yeah, great question. I mean, it was - it started when Vice Media took Dennis Rodman into North Korea. But what I discovered in the course of my reporting is that some people had brought it up. One outside adviser had suggested to President Obama that he consider sending a Chicago Bull to North Korea. And the CIA had actually thought, previously, as well, about sending Dennis Rodman because they thought this would be kind of a bridge between the U.S. and North Korea.

DAVIES: Didn't they try to get Michael Jordan first?

FIFIELD: They did try to get Michael Jordan, and for some reason, Michael Jordan was not wanting to have any part of this. So they did settle on Dennis Rodman, who was more willing to do - to make this trip. But it's very surprising that Kim Jong Un not only had Dennis Rodman to North Korea and hosted him for these basketball games - but the fact that he also allowed the North Korean people to see this.

North Korea is founded on this opposition to the United States. United States is derided in the state media every single day. So all of a sudden, on the state television and the front page of the main newspaper, there is Kim Jong Un, standing with an American, and not just any American, but like you say, an American who was wearing a hat and sunglasses in the presence of the great leader and covered in tattoos and piercings. So it must have been very surprising for North Korean officials and the North Korean general public to see this picture.

But I also think it enables Kim Jong Un to say, you know, this is how powerful I am - that this American basketballer will travel all this way to see me and to play for me - you know, this very similar message to what he's able to present with the meetings with President Trump and the other world leaders. You know, he wants to be seen as somebody who is revered and respected in the outside world. So every time he meets with somebody like this, he's able to perpetuate that line.

DAVIES: Rodman made three trips, right?

FIFIELD: No, he made more than that, actually. But the last couple of trips, he did not meet Kim Jong Un. But he has - yeah - met him on three occasions.

DAVIES: And there were some evenings where there were banquets with free-flowing alcohol, and it got kind of weird, didn't it?

FIFIELD: It did get weird. I talked to several people who were present at those banquets and who went partying on Kim Jong Un's yacht with him out on the - off the east coast of North Korea. Yeah. They described a lot of alcohol, a lot of singing. There was karaoke. One person described how Kim Jong Un was singing some James Brown hits. So it was - yeah - very, very weird scenes. None of that, of course, was caught on camera.

DAVIES: Do we know which James Brown song?

FIFIELD: I believe it was "Get On Up."

DAVIES: (Laughter) OK. And there was one particularly memorable toast that Dennis Rodman gave to the great leader. Can you paraphrase it?

FIFIELD: Yes. So he - yeah. Dennis Rodman stood up and prepared to deliver this toast, in which he suggested that Kim Jong Un's father and grandfather may not have been the best of leaders. He used several curse words all in a row to say that they had done some bad things before him. But he, you know, concluded by saying that he had faith in Kim Jong Un, that he was going to be a different kind of leader and do a better job.

And everybody who was in the room, you know, froze when they heard this, thinking, you know, you cannot criticize the leader of North Korea, especially not in such colorful terms. But once it was translated for Kim Jong Un, he apparently burst out laughing and, you know, broke the ice. And suddenly, everybody breathed a sigh of relief that it was not going to be a diplomatic incident there.

DAVIES: Good times (laughter). Anna Fifield, thanks for your reporting, and thanks for speaking with us.

FIFIELD: Thank you, Dave. It's been a pleasure to be on.

DAVIES: Anna Fifield is the Beijing bureau chief for The Washington Post. Her new book is "The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny Of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un."

Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews the new novel by Jill Ciment, which she calls both smart and disturbing. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.