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Meet Kim Jong-un, a Moody Young Man With a Nuclear Arsenal

North Korean state media have swaddled Mr. Kim’s childhood with mythmaking, portraying him as an excellent marksman and a “genius among geniuses” who loved to drive fast cars. At age 16, he is said to have written a research paper analyzing his grandfather’s leadership during the Korean War.

From 1996 until at least 2000, Mr. Kim is believed to have studied in public schools in Switzerland disguised as the son of a North Korean diplomat. The classes were taught in German, and Mr. Kim struggled with the language. A video recorded at the time shows him uncomfortably tapping a tambourine in a music class.

“We weren’t the dimmest kids in class but neither were we the cleverest,” a classmate, Joao Micaelo, told a British tabloid in 2011.

Mr. Micaelo and others have said Mr. Kim was a quiet teenager who loved James Bond films and playing basketball. But he stood out because he had expensive sneakers and gadgets, including a Sony PlayStation, and enjoyed the services of a cook, a driver and a private tutor.

One classmate, Marco Imhof, recalled how he once scolded a servant for serving cold spaghetti. “I was surprised because it was not how he normally was,” Mr. Imhof said in an interview published in 2010.

There is evidence that Mr. Kim’s time as a youth in Europe, and perhaps other countries, left an impression. In his memoir, Mr. Fujimoto recalled conversations with Mr. Kim as a teenager in which the future leader expressed frustration with power shortages at home and marveled at overseas department stores.

“Japan was defeated by America, but they’ve greatly reconstructed the country. The shops were full of goods. What about our country?” Mr. Fujimoto quoted the young Mr. Kim as saying. Later in the conversation, Mr. Kim suggested that North Korea should learn from China’s market-oriented economic policies, Mr. Fujimoto wrote.

Such accounts have left some analysts hopeful.

“When the time comes, Kim Jong-un is expected to adopt policies that will ease his country’s isolation and embrace good things from the West,” Paik Hak-soon, a North Korea expert at the Sejong Institute, a think tank outside Seoul, said in a paper on Mr. Kim’s leadership published in February.


Jang Song-thaek, in blue, being escorted in court on Dec. 12, 2013. He was later executed. Credit Yonhap News Agency, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

‘Reign of Terror’

But first came what South Korean officials have called a “reign of terror.”

After returning to Pyongyang, North Korea’s capital, Mr. Kim graduated from the Kim Il-sung Military University in 2006 and was put on a fast track into the nation’s military leadership. Recent state propaganda footage has shown him inspecting military units in the years after graduation. In one scene, he is seen welcoming his father home from an overseas trip and shaking hands with him as an equal.

After his father’s death, though, Mr. Kim’s hold on power is believed to have been precarious. He had completed his university education only five years earlier and was surrounded by experienced military leaders and party officials. Outside North Korea, many assumed he was the supreme leader in name only, with real power in the hands of Jang Song-thaek, his uncle and regent.

Mr. Jang appeared to help his nephew carry out a systematic purge, replacing many of the nation’s most powerful generals and bureaucrats, according to South Korean intelligence officials.

But two years into his rule, Mr. Kim moved against his uncle, too, arranging for him to be arrested by uniformed officers during a Politburo meeting while hundreds of party delegates watched. Mr. Jang was executed on charges that included clapping “halfheartedly” when Mr. Kim entered the room and plotting to overthrow him.

The purge continued with a new focus on rooting out those loyal to Mr. Jang. Many were executed with antiaircraft machine guns after members of the ruling elite were brought in by trucks to be witnesses, South Korean intelligence officials said.

Cheong Seong-chang, an expert on the Kim family at the Sejong Institute, said high-level North Korean defectors told him that Mr. Jang had as many as 20 children and that Mr. Kim had them all killed.

In total, since taking power, Mr. Kim is believed to have executed more than 140 senior officials.

“He moved quickly and ruthlessly,” said Daniel A. Pinkston, a Seoul-based professor of international relations at Troy University. “I think most people did not expect a man so young to be so proficient at managing his dictatorship.”

Analysts say Mr. Kim has restored the authority of the Workers’ Party apparatus and uses it as his main vehicle for governing, in contrast with his father, who put the military first, rarely convened formal party meetings and made decisions in secretive, late-night sessions of his cronies. That, some say, has added a degree of institutional predictability to his rule.

But Mr. Kim has not abandoned his father’s use of hagiography in the state news media, which portrays him as all-powerful, with even the party’s second-ranking official, Vice Marshal Hwang Pyong-so, fawning over him in recent photos.

Mr. Rodman, the former professional basketball player, has described going to a stadium packed with 150,000 people during the 2013 visit to Pyongyang where he was allowed to meet Mr. Kim. “People were standing for a half-hour, just clapping,” he told an audience at West Point in March. “They were crying for this man.”

Source: NYT > World

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