The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong-un by Anna Fifield, pub. Hachette. 4/5 stars North Korean ruler Kim Jong-un is an enigmatic figure for all that he is instantly recognisable, a young man who could easily usher the world into its next major conflict. Yet trying to gain an understanding of who he is can be – to put it mildly – a challenge. Journalists, diplomats and world leaders have tried to unravel the man, searching for clues to his personality and where he might lead his hermit kingdom. This quest has accelerated in the years since Donald Trump came to power – the pair having traded insults before meeting, first in Singapore and then in Hanoi . Nevertheless, key biographical details of Kim’s life remain unknown. As Washington Post journalist Anna Fifield writes in The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong-un , an ambitious biography, the North Korean leader has spent most of his life behind the curtain of the world’s most secretive regime. He only came to wide attention in 2009, when, at the age of 25, he was formally introduced to the country’s elite as his father’s successor. Kim grew up in walled compounds behind five-metre-high iron gates, with enormous playrooms filled with “more toys than any European toy store”, soundproofed cinemas and kitchens loaded with French pastries, smoked salmon and pâté. This at a time when many North Koreans were starving. There were gardens “so large that they called them parks, with artificial waterfalls running into artificial lakes”. Yet, as Fifield writes, it was a lonely childhood; Jong-un’s eighth birthday party was attended by high-level officials rather than other children. He was sent to Switzerland to study at the International School of Bern, “a private, English-language school attended by the children of diplomats and other expats in the Swiss capital”, and then at a German-language school in nearby Liebefeld. Fifield tracks down former classmates and others who knew Jong-un when he struggled with languages and social interaction. Despite its title – which plays on the grandiose designations given to Kim in North Korea – Fifield’s book is a serious work of journalism. The New Zealander was sent by the Financial Times to cover the Koreas in 2004 and has visited North Korea regularly over the past 15 years. She conducted hundreds of hours of interviews across eight countries, often with people who had fled the repressive regime. “What I learned did not bode well for the 25 million people still trapped inside North Korea,” she writes. After his father, Kim Jong-il, died in 2011, Korea-watchers were sceptical of the younger Kim, with some predicting the regime would collapse within months, “if not weeks”. Many believed it could not survive a third generation of totalitarian dynasty, much less “a twenty-something who’d been educated at fancy European schools […] a young man with no known military or government background”. Yet Kim has proven to be both calculating and ruthless. While North Korea has not embarked on any grand economic opening up, Kim has allowed minor acts of private enterprise that have, in small ways, improved lives: South Korean intelligence estimates at least 40 per cent of the population now make money through their own endeavours, while the number of government-approved markets has more than doubled to over 400. Meanwhile, security along the river border with China has been strengthened and potential rivals, including Kim’s influential uncle and half-brother, have been dispatched in brutal fashion. The darkest parts of the book might be those that deal with Kim’s older half-brother, Kim Jong-nam . The one-time contender to succeed Kim Jong-il would end up being assassinated in one of the most bizarre killings in recent history ; two women smeared toxic chemicals on his face in Kuala Lumpur International Airport in 2017. Kim Jong-un is widely believed to have been behind the attack. In the book, Kim Jong-nam is portrayed as an intelligent misfit who never quite belonged in the secretive country where he was born, unlike his younger brother. Xi promises to help North Korean denuclearisation process We also get a rare glimpse into the lives of the elite, in particular millennials, “the people of his generation, who, if they felt they were flourishing under [Kim’s] leadership, could potentially keep him in power for decades to come”. These people frequent Italian restaurants and sushi bars in Pyongyang, pubs selling craft beer, and amusement parks with roller coasters. “Today, Kim Jong-un’s cabal can shoot pool and sing karaoke. They can take yoga classes and drink cappuccinos with cute animal faces drawn into the foam. They can text on their smartphones and swing Christian Dior or Gucci purses,” Fifield writes. The author interviews Kang Nara, the daughter of a North Korean businessman who was involved in construction before he defected. Kang describes growing up in Chongjin, the third-largest city in North Korea, with a monthly allowance of US$400, which is about 100 times the salary of a state factory worker. She says she was dismissive of boys who didn’t own expensive smartphones and wear imported clothes. The book also delves into the unlikely friendship between Dennis Rodman, the flamboyant former basketball player, and the dictator, as well as the diplomatic crisis that blew up around Otto Warmbier , the young American jailed for pulling down a propaganda poster who would be returned to the United States in a coma only to die days later. We also hear about the outlandish claims made by the country’s propagandists: such as how, aged three, Kim could shoot a gun and hit a light bulb from 100 metres away, and that, by the time he was eight, he could “not only drive a truck, but he could drive it at 80 miles an hour”. Kim regime won’t last beyond 20 years, predicts North Korean defector High schools in North Korea were required to teach a course devoted to the new leader – the curriculum amounted to 81 hours of lessons on Kim, in addition to those focused on his father, grandfather and grandmother. Fifield portrays Kim as a determined, unremitting leader, focused above all else on survival. She suggests a powerful reaction to the Arab spring , when, in the final days of 2010, “autocracies with dynastic designs began falling in the Middle East”. There was a determination not to let that happen in North Korea. Kim presided over the country’s first successful hydrogen bomb test, in 2017, and the launch of intercontinental ballistic missiles later that year that allowed North Korea to threaten targets in the United States. This done, Kim felt he had created the deterrents necessary to safeguard against foreign-backed attempts to topple his regime. Kim has embraced other aspects of military strength. Under his rule, the country has nurtured an army of cyber warriors who have not only hacked the country’s enemies but also earned much needed funds. According to South Korean officials, their country is hit by about 1.5 million North Korean hacking attacks every day. The Great Successor is an impressive achievement and an absorbing read. Above all, the book makes it clear that everything Kim has done since his first days in power has been “carefully calculated to help him achieve his only goal: to remain, as his image makers put it, the Ever-Victorious, Iron-Willed Commander of North Korea”. That is a worrying thought.