When Kim Jong-un inherited control of North Korea at the end of 2011, becoming the “Great Successor” to his father, Kim Jong-il, there was widespread scepticism that the pudgy, basketball-loving 27-year-old was up to the task of running the world's most totalitarian state. It was a state that had survived the collapse of the Soviet Union, the death of its lionised founder, a famine, and the transformation of China, its last remaining benefactor. But many predicted that the Kim family's luck had finally run out. “North Korea as we know it is over,” a former Korea adviser to President George W Bush declared. I, too, could not fathom how this dynasty could accomplish the unprecedented transition to a third generation. Since my first trip to Pyongyang in 2005 and North Korea's first nuclear test the following year, I had seen its decrepit economy crumble further and its international isolation deepen. I had talked to escapees from North Korea about the profound deprivations of life inside the country and witnessed their visceral hatred for the Kim regime.
I had watched as the regime fast-tracked the preparations for the succession, squeezing into two years what it had spent 25 years doing when preparing the populace for the transition from Kim Il-sung to Kim Jong-il. It was in 2009 that North Koreans first began hearing about the “Leader Comrade” Kim Jong-un. They were told he had “Paektu blood”running through his veins, a reference to the mountain in the north of the country that supposedly conferred divine status on the family. The regime's propagandists didn't go as far as they had with his father – they said a bright star appeared in the sky the night Kim Jong-il was supposedly born on Mount Paektu – but they did make up some fanciful stories. They said that Kim Jong-un could fire a gun and hit a lightbulb 100 metres away at age three, that by the time he was eight, he could not only drive a truck but he could drive it at 80 miles an hour.