Book Review — Becoming Kim Jong Un: A Former CIA Officer’s Insights into North Korea’s Enigmatic Young Dictator

Becoming Kim Jong Un: A Former CIA Officer’s Insights into North Korea’s Enigmatic Young Dictator by Jung H. Pak is a history of North Korea to include the current regime of Kim Jong Un.  Pak has held senior positions at the CIA and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. She is a senior fellow and the SK-Korea Foundation Chair in Korea Studies at the Brookings Institution’s Center for East Asia Policy Studies, where she focuses on the national security challenges facing the United States and East Asia.

For readers who have tried to stay up to date on North Korea and its leadership, it is discouraging that each new book repeats the same information.  It is the same handful of interviews from people who have escaped to South Korea.  Even book of personal accounts repeat these same stories to help fill the pages.  Even those who have lived there are so compartmentalized that their view is limited.  Western visitors see an idealized view of the country even though obviously fake.  Reports of executed officials are later retracted as they appear in public.  Executions by dogs make headlines, but later are unsupported.  Execution by mortars and anti-aircraft guns, however, may be true.  It is difficult to determine what is real and what is propaganda in a very closed society.

Serious crimes in North Korea punished by the three generation rule.  Essentially if someone is convicted of a serious crime he will pay for the crime along with his children and grand children.  Likewise, anyone wanting to read the latest on North Korea will also have to endure the three generation rule.  To learn about Kim Jung Un, one must also read about Kim Il-sung and Kim Jung-il.  This helps with setting up the conditions of the country but also helps fill the pages.  Pak’s book also follows this trend but does shed a little new light on Kim Jong -un  and his methods of rule and the former rising star of North Korea Kim Yo-jong, a woman holding extraordinary power in the regime.

Pak’s insight and experience adds much to the otherwise previous information.  New information however remains sparse.  Even with North Korea keeping itself in the headlines, little is known about the country.  The problem with North Korea is much like the parable of the five blind men and the elephant.  Each man touches part of the elephant — the trunk for one, the tail for another and so forth. Each of the five men has a partial picture of the elephant and it is not until they all come together that a clear picture emerges.  For North Korea, we have visitors who present one picture, defectors another picture, satellite imagery an other, analysts, like Pak, provide another picture.  Still we are missing many key pieces to form the full picture.  Although Becoming Kim Jong Un is the most up to date and arguably the most accurate picture of the country we have, much is still missing.  Still, Pak’s work is a large step forward in understanding and putting the pieces we have together.





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One response to “Book Review — Becoming Kim Jong Un: A Former CIA Officer’s Insights into North Korea’s Enigmatic Young Dictator

  1. So good to hear that this one is very up to date and sounds well done! I loved The Great Successor last year, but yes, it is so frustrating that we only get bits and pieces and never a whole picture. I think his analyst’s angle sounds like it provides some worthwhile insights though. Great review!

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