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Kim Jong Un’s Undercover Adolescent Years in Switzerland

Anna Fifield is Beijing bureau chief at the Washington Post. This is adapted from her recent book, The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un.

João Micaelo, then the 14-year-old son of Portuguese immigrants, clearly remembered the Asian boy in a tracksuit and Nike shoes walking into 6A, a class of 22 students at his small public school in Bern, Switzerland, in 1998. The kids were already seated at their desks when the new boy was brought in and introduced as Pak Un, the son of North Korean diplomats. There was a spare seat next to João, so the new boy, who simply went by the name of Un, sat in it. The 12-year-old had a pudding-bowl haircut and the start of what would one day become a very pronounced double chin.

The pair soon became close, bonding because of their seat placement but also because neither was particularly academic. In sixth grade, classes were split into two streams, and both Un and João were sent to the group of academically weaker students. Un was embarrassed when he was called to answer questions in front of the class—not because he didn’t know the answers necessarily but because he couldn’t express himself. So João helped him with his German homework, while the newcomer helped his new friend with math. João remembers Un as quiet but said that he was very decisive and capable of making his point.

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It wasn’t until years later that João and his other schoolmates from Bern realized who the new kid was: Kim Jong Un, the future leader of North Korea.

When he was announced as his father’s heir in 2010, some analysts hoped that, having spent four years in Switzerland during his formative teenage years, Kim Jong Un would be a more open-minded leader of North Korea. That he might embark on reforms that, while not turning his family’s Stalinist state into a liberal democracy, might make it a little less repressive. After all, in many ways, Kim’s time in Switzerland reveals an adolescence and education that were not so different from typical Western ones: There was a love of basketball, a curriculum that required him to learn about Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela, and a wardrobe packed with brand-name tracksuits (jeans were still out of the question).

But these formative years, of which this is the most complete account to date, might have had the opposite effect on the future leader. Kim’s years in Switzerland, during which he was enrolled in both a tony private school and a small German-speaking public school, would have taught him that if he were to live in the outside world, he would have been entirely unremarkable. A nobody. Far from persuading him to change his country, these years would have shown him the necessity of perpetuating the system that had turned him, his father and grandfather into deities. The years also reveal some of the same interests and temperamental characteristics that would come to define the man who is the biggest foreign-policy thorn in the United States’ side. For instance, the same Kim Jong Un who had his uncle and half-brother killed was also known as a teenager for lashing out at his classmates when they spoke in German, a language that he had struggled to master himself.

Kim Jong Un was still very much a child when he departed for Bern, the capital of Switzerland, in the summer of 1996 to join his older brother Kim Jong Chol at school. He found himself in a chocolate-box picturesque city that that felt more like a quaint town than an international capital. Bern was famous for its clock tower, known as the Zytglogge, which had led a young patent clerk called Albert Einstein to develop the theory of relativity some 90 years earlier. Einstein, riding home from work on a tram one evening in 1905, solved the mystery of “space-time” that had been bothering him for years.

The August that Kim Jong Un arrived in Switzerland, Mission Impossible was in theaters, and Trainspotting was about to open. Top-of-the-line personal computers used floppy disks and ran on MS-DOS.

The North Korean princeling emerged from his cloistered childhood into this new, open world. It wasn’t his first time abroad—he had traveled to Europe and Japan before—but it was the first time he had lived outside the confines of the North Korean royal court.

He joined his older brother, who had been living in Liebefeld, a decidedly suburban neighborhood on the outskirts of Bern, for two years with their maternal aunt, Ko Yong Suk, her husband, Ri Gang, and their three children.

“We lived in a normal home and acted like a normal family. I acted like their mother,” Kim’s aunt told me when I tracked her down in the United States almost 20 years later. “Their friends would come over, and I would make them snacks. It was a very normal childhood with birthday parties and gifts and Swiss kids coming over to play.”

They spoke Korean at home and ate Korean food, and the boys’ friends didn’t know that Imo—as Jong Chol and Jong Un called her—was Korean for “Aunt,” not for “Mom.”

They enjoyed living in Europe and having money. Their family photo albums contain pictures of the future leader of North Korea swimming in the Mediterranean on the French Riviera, dining al fresco in Italy, going to Euro Disney in Paris—it wasn’t Kim Jong Un’s first trip there; his mother had already taken him a few years before—and skiing in the Swiss Alps. They relaxed at a luxury hotel in Interlaken, the swanky resort town outside Bern that is the gateway to the Jungfrau mountains and home to a famous amusement park.

All the members of the Kim family had carefully constructed identities to conceal who they really were. Ri was registered as a driver at the North Korean Embassy and went by the name Pak Nam Chol. Pak is one of the most common Korean surnames after Kim. Ko, in keeping with Korean practice whereby women keep their surnames after marriage, had paperwork naming her as Chong Yong Hye.

Kim Jong Chol was officially Pak Chol, and Kim Jong Un was Pak Un. But the aliases were not new. All of them had been accredited to the North Korean mission to the United Nations in Geneva since 1991, and these diplomatic documents would have allowed them to travel freely in Europe.

Under this identity, Kim Jong Un settled in Liebefeld, where the architecture is more ’70s concrete block than Alpine village. It is not dissimilar to the brutalist style of Pyongyang. Behind the main street in an “industrial alley,” as the sign puts it, next door to a large wine trading company that looks like a monastery, is No. 10 Kirchstrasse. This was Kim Jong Un’s home while he was in Switzerland. It’s in a three-story, light-orange sandstone building surrounded by hydrangeas.

The North Korean regime had bought six apartments in the building shortly after their construction in 1989 for a price of 4 million Swiss francs—a little over $ 4 million at the time—for the family and some of the other North Korean dignitaries living in the Swiss capital.

The apartment was more modest than he was used to back home, with no pictures on the walls, but the teenage Kim Jong Un had gadgets his classmates could only dream of: a mini-disc player, which was the cutting-edge way to store music in the years before iPods; a Sony PlayStation; and lots of movies that hadn’t yet been released in theaters. The few friends who went to his apartment loved watching his action films, especially those featuring Jackie Chan or the latest James Bond.

In Switzerland, Kim Jong Un could live a relatively normal existence. He joined his older brother at the International School of Berne, a private, English-language school attended by the children of diplomats and other expats in the capital. Tuition cost more than $ 20,000 a year.

No one batted an eyelid when Kim Jong Un, sometimes wearing the school T-shirt, complete with Swiss flag and a bear, the symbol of the capital, was delivered to school in a chauffeur-driven car. Many other diplomats’ kids arrived at school the same way.

The school, whose student population today spans about 40 nationalities, touts itself as being “perfectly situated in a neutral country.” Indeed, Switzerland, famous for its discretion about everything from bank accounts to the schooling of dictators’ children, was the ideal location for the secretive North Koreans.

When the news first emerged that Kim Jong Un would be the successor to Kim Jong Il, many former acquaintances, who had known both brothers under different names and were now unsure which one had been named the successor, reported tidbits of information that were in fact about his brother. Classmates recounted how the North Korean was introverted but was relatively fluent in English, but it turned out they were remembering the wrong North Korean, “Pak Chol” instead of “Pak Un.”

One snippet—a penchant for the films of Jean-Claude van Damme—did, however, appear to apply to the two boys, both of whom apparently loved to watch movies featuring the Belgian action star. In a coincidence that would play out later, van Damme co-starred in a Hollywood movie called “Double Team” with a certain basketballer named Dennis Rodman. The film came out in 1997, while Kim Jong Un was in Switzerland.

Kim Jong Un was obsessed with basketball. He had a hoop outside the apartment and would play out there often, sometimes making more noise than the neighbors would have preferred.

Every day at 5 p.m., when the school bell rang, Kim Jong Un would head to the basketball courts at his school or at the high school in the nearby city of Lerbermatt, less than a 10-minute walk away. He always wore the same outfit for basketball: an authentic Chicago Bulls top with Michael Jordan’s number—23—and Bulls shorts and his Air Jordan shoes. His ball was also top of the line: a Spalding with the official mark of the NBA.

Kim’s competitive side came out on the basketball court. He could be aggressive and often indulged in trash talk. He was serious on the court, hardly ever laughing or even talking, just focused on the game. When things went badly for him, he would curse or even pound his head against the wall.

From his base in Europe, he was even able to see some of the greats. He had been to Paris to see an NBA exhibition game and had photos of himself standing with Toni Kukoc of the Chicago Bulls and Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers.

It was his mother, Ko Yong Hui, who first sparked his interest in the sport. There’s an old tale that Korean mothers, North and South, like to tell their children: If you play basketball, you’ll grow taller.

Kim Jong Un was short as a child, and his father was not a tall man—he was only 5 foot 3, and famously wore platform shoes to try to compensate—so Ko encouraged her son to play basketball in the hope the tale was true. He grew to be 5 foot 7, so maybe it worked a bit.

She was thrilled to see her son taking to basketball, a sport that she believed would help him clear his mind and loosen his childhood obsession with planes and engines. Instead, Kim Jong Un’s mother and aunt soon saw that basketball had become an addiction, too—the boy was sleeping with his basketball in his bed—and one that came at the expense of his studies. His mother would visit Bern regularly to scold her son for playing too much and studying too little.

She arrived on a passport that declared her to be Chong Il Son, assigned to the North Korean mission at the United Nations in Geneva since 1987, but the Swiss knew exactly who she was. After all, she arrived in the country in a Russian-made Ilyushin 62 jet bearing the insignia of Air Koryo, the North Korean state airline. The plane, which bore the tail number P882, was for VIPs only. It even had a full bedroom onboard.

All sorts of bags and merchandise would be loaded on and off the plane, watched carefully by Swiss intelligence. They monitored Ko Yong Hui closely, keeping records of everything from her shopping expeditions on Zurich’s Bahnhofstrasse, one of the world’s most exclusive shopping avenues, to her hospital bills at fancy private clinics on Lake Geneva.

They also knew who her children were. In private conversation, they called Kim Jong Chol “the tall, skinny one” and Kim Jong Un “the short, fat one.” But the new Swiss attorney general, Carla Del Ponte (who would later become chief prosecutor in the international criminal tribunals of Yugoslavia and Rwanda), had forbidden the Swiss authorities to monitor the children. In famously discreet Switzerland, they were allowed to just be children— even if they were the children of one of the world’s most notorious tyrants.

But two years into his stay in Switzerland, Kim Jong Un’s world was turned upside. His mother had been diagnosed with advanced breast cancer and was starting intensive medical treatment in France. Her prognosis wasn’t good.

The illness could also prove terminal for Kim Jong Un’s guardians, his maternal aunt and uncle. Their link to the regime, the relationship that had vaulted them into this privileged position, was becoming weaker by the day.

They decided to abandon their charges and make a dash for freedom.

So after nightfall on Sunday, May 17, Kim Jong Un’s aunt and uncle packed their three children into a taxi and went to the U.S. Embassy. Only their oldest, who was then 14, the same age as Kim Jong Un, knew what was going to happen next.

When they arrived at the embassy, they explained that they were North Koreans, that Ko was the leader’s sister-in-law, and that they were seeking asylum in the United States. The U.S. government didn’t know at that stage who Kim Jong Un was, so Ko and Ri didn’t initially mention that part. They were granted asylum in the United States and settled down in Middle America, started a dry-cleaning store like so many other Korean immigrants and watched their children flourish in their new environment.

Kim Jong Un’s mother lived for six more years, dying in a Paris hospital in 2004.

***

When he returned to Bern after spending the summer of 1998 in North Korea, Kim Jong Un did not go back to the private international school. Instead, he made a new start at the German-speaking public school in his neighborhood, Schule Liebefeld Steinhölzli. That way, he wouldn’t have to explain why his “parents” had changed.

The school was less than 400 yards from the apartment block where the North Koreans lived, a five-minute walk down the concrete staircase, past the supermarket and other shops, and around the traffic circle.

In the late 1990s, When Kim Jong Un attended the school, a cluster of two- and three-story functionally designed buildings, it had only 200 students and nine classes. The education department liked to have many small schools so that no student would have to travel too far each day.

When he first enrolled at the school in Liebefeld, Kim Jong Un started in a “reception” class for children who did not speak German, spending several months learning his lessons in German but at a slower pace with simpler instruction.

To find out more about what the young North Korean learned in school, I took the bus to Köniz one day and visited the municipality office. Marisa Vifian, head of the Köniz education department, pulled out a big white binder containing the school curriculum from the 1990s. There was the usual lineup of classes—German, math, science, health, foreign languages, music, art and sports—as well as units like “The World Around Us,” which taught world religions and cultures.

Once he finished in the preparatory reception class, Kim Jong Un joined the regular sixth-grade class.

While his friend João remembered Kim Jong Un as “ambitious but not aggressive,” according to an unpublished interview with a Swiss journalist, other students remember the new kid being forceful because he had trouble communicating. While lessons were in High German, the more formal variety of the language spoken in official situations in Switzerland, families and friends spoke to each other in Swiss German, former classmates recalled. This is technically a dialect, but to an outsider, it sounds so different that it might as well be Dutch. It was frustrating to Kim Jong Un, who resented his inability to understand. “He kicked us in the shins and even spat at us,” said one former classmate.

In addition to the communication problems, the other students tended to think of Kim Jong Un as a weird outsider, his school friends recall, not least because the North Korean always wore tracksuits, never jeans, the standard uniform of teenagers the world over. In North Korea, jeans are a symbol of the despised capitalists.

One classmate remembered him wearing Adidas tracksuits with three stripes down the side and the newest pair of Nike Air Jordans. The other kids in the school could only dream of having such shoes, said Nikola Kovacevic, another former classmate who often played basketball with Kim after school and estimates a pair cost more than $ 200 in Switzerland at the time.

A class photo from that time shows the teenagers decked out in an array of 1990s fashion, with chambray shirts and oversized sweatshirts, assembled under a tree in the schoolyard. Kim Jong Un stands in the center of the back row wearing a tracksuit, gray and black with red piping and big red letters reading “NIKE” down the sleeve. He’s staring unsmiling at the camera.

Another photo taken around this time shows Kim with a smile, wearing a silver necklace over his black T-shirt and looking like a typical teenager. Another reveals some fuzz on his top lip and a smattering of pimples on his cheek.

As he moved into the upper years at school, Kim Jong Un improved his German enough that he was able to get by in class. Even the girl whom he had kicked and spat at conceded that he “thawed” over time as he became more sociable.

Still, he remained introverted. At a time when teenagers are usually pushing boundaries, Kim Jong Un was no party animal or playboy in training. He didn’t go to school camp, parties, or discos, and he didn’t touch a drop of alcohol.

Kim Jong Un “absolutely avoided contact with girls,” the former classmate said, adding that she never had a substantial conversation with him. “He was a loner and didn’t share anything about his private life.”

His test scores were never great, but Kim Jong Un went on to pass the seventh and eighth grades and was there for a part of the ninth grade at the high school, the Köniz education authorities confirmed.

The education that Kim received in Switzerland presented a worldview very different from the one he experienced in North Korea. Kim Jong Un’s lessons included human rights, women’s rights, and the development of democracy. One unit was even called “Happiness, Suffering, Life and Death.” Students learned about Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Mahatma Gandhi. There was a strong emphasis on cultural diversity; religious, ethnic, and social groups; the rights of human beings; and standing in solidarity with the disadvantaged.

It’s hard to know what Kim Jong Un thought during these lessons. No such rights existed in North Korea. But this might not have been as jarring to Kim as it sounds because he had encountered very few North Koreans and almost none in situations outside those that were carefully choreographed to show smiling citizens who beamed contentment at him. Kim could have told himself that his people didn’t need all those fine ideals because they were evidently very happy under his father’s leadership.

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Anyway, Kim Jong Un didn’t stay at school for much longer.

One day, around Easter 2001, with only a couple of months to go until he completed ninth grade, Kim told Micaelo that his father had ordered him back to North Korea and that he would leave soon. He offered no explanation for his sudden recall.

Kim’s other friends received no such notice. The boy just stopped coming to school one day. Their teachers said they had no idea what happened to him, either.

Just like that, Pak Un was gone. His classmates wouldn’t see him again for almost a decade, when he would appear on the balcony of a majestic building in the middle of Pyongyang with his father, having been crowned The Great Successor.

From the book THE GREAT SUCCESSOR by Anna Fifield. Copyright © 2019 by Anna Fifield. Reprinted by permission of PublicAffairs, New York, N.Y. All rights reserved.

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