Kim Jong Un, 38, turned out to be a tyrannical dictator like his father and grandfather — and he’s still mysterious. He reportedly turned up alive Friday after weeks of speculation that he was dead or comatose. But he’s keeping the world guessing — as he did as a kid studying under a fake name in a suburb of Bern, Switzerland.
Kim was shipped to Switzerland — where an older brother had already gone to study — around age 12 in 1996 during the devastating North Korean famine that killed up to 3 million people. He was left in the care of an aunt who posed as his mother and later defected to the US, where she ran a dry cleaners in Manhattan.
His classmate at the Liebefeld-Steinhölzli school in Bern in 1998, Joao Micaelo, described him as a reserved kid who could be temperamental and was obsessed with basketball, especially Michael Jordan. He also loved Jean-Claude Van Damme movies.
“He was quiet but he was also decisive,“ Micaelo said. He went by the name of “Pak Chol” and teachers were told he was the son of North Korean diplomats.
Kim was so crazy about basketball that he sometimes slept with one next to his bed, his aunt once said. He wore NBA jerseys, had a massive collection of expensive Nike shoes and wore fancy tracksuits, never jeans, as jeans were a sign of hated capitalism.
He got along with his classmates, though he struggled with the Swiss-German dialect spoken in Bern and could sometimes be “explosively competitive” on the basketball court, said another former classmate, Marco Imhof.
Kim’s teacher at the Liebefeld school, Michel Riesen, remembered Kim as a good-natured 14-year-old with a sense of humor. Riesen said he often walked to school from the unassuming home he lived in with his aunt and other family members not far from the North Korean embassy.
“If I look back I see a friendly, gentle Asian boy,” Riesen told NBC News in 2018. “A teenager from next door.” Riesen said Kim was a good student but “not extraordinary.”
And make no mistake, Riesen said. Kim’s overseas schooling gave him a good understanding of Western values — whether or not he cared.
“Democracy is part of our being here in Switzerland,” Riesen said. “So for sure he came into contact with democracy.”
Micaelo said Kim once confessed that he was the son of the leader of North Korea. The former classmate didn’t believe it until his old friend surfaced as the Great Leader, the third in a succession of a weird, personality cult-driven autocrats, in 2011.
Kim studied abroad and spent family vacations skiing in the French Alps, going to EuroDisney in Paris, and swimming on the French Riviera, but this international experience didn’t translate into political enlightenment or empathy for his countrymen at home when he took over after his father’s death. Arguably all it did was inspire Kim to build an amusement park and ski resort that usually sit empty while ordinary North Koreans struggle to find enough to eat.
North Korean-born Jason Lee, who’s a year younger than Kim and defected to South Korea and then the U.S. in 2014, said that much is made of Kim’s seemingly random four-year Swiss sojourn — but it’s typical for someone from North Korea’s tiny inner circle of high-ranking families.
“All of us speak multiple languages and many of the kids of the elite families travel a lot and live outside the country when they can,” Lee, who now lives in Washington, DC, told The Post. “Nobody can access the Internet in the country but they can when they leave. They know the education is fake, the mythology of the Kim family is fake. But they can’t speak out against it. Their whole family would be punished. They call it the three-generation rule.”
Kim has the same problem. Even if he wanted to reform a country where many go hungry and even the homes of the political elites rarely have more than one hour of electricity a day, he couldn’t.
“He’s a master at running the country but he’s also trapped by the country and the mythology,” Jung H. Pak, a former CIA analyst and author of the new book, “Becoming Jong Un,” told The Post.
“He inherited the nukes, the repressive bureaucracy, the gulags and the fear and there’s no way to escape it. If he wants to survive he has to continue the brutality. There’s no other way for him.”
Not to say that Pak thinks it’s hard for Kim to throw his 300-lb. weight around and kill and torture close friends and relatives. His defector aunt, who is believed to live in northern New Jersey, once recalled that he was “short-tempered” and lacking “tolerance” when he was a child
“I wouldn’t say he’s a sociopath,” Pak said. “But he has a high tolerance for other people’s pain. It was extremely brutal how he killed his uncle and brother. It was public, gruesome and humiliating. And make no mistake. He did that for people outside the regime but mainly for people inside the regime. He wanted to let them know in no uncertain terms who was the boss.”
Some North Korean experts say there is a strategic reason that Kim looks so plump. Because of cold, hunger and starvation often suffered by the North Korean people, an obese person signals health, wealth and power.
Children who lived through the ‘90s famine are now soldiers in the Workers Party. Their growth was so stunted by starvation that some barely grew above five feet. There have been reports that the minimum height requirement for a soldier is 4’8” or 4’9”. Kim is 5’7” and his grandfather, who founded the country in 1948 and ruled to 1994, was 5’10”, very tall for a North Korean.
“Physically Kim’s trying to look like his grandfather,” Cha said. “He was fat and smoking all the time and outwardly jovial, like Kim. He looked robust and healthy which is how they think a leader should look.”