A new biography about North Korea’s reclusive Kim Jong-un has revealed fresh details of a privileged, but cloistered childhood that paved the path to his tyrannical rule as the world’s youngest nuclear-armed leader.
According to The Great Successor: The Secret Rise and Rule of Kim Jong Un, by Washington Post journalist Anna Fifield, Kim’s lonely early years were spent in walled luxury compounds with 15-foot iron gates in the capital Pyongyang, and at the family beach home in the coastal city of Wonsan.
He wanted for nothing, with the regime’s then leader Kim Jong-il, his late father, ensuring that he had Super Mario video games, pinball machines and more gadgets than any European toy store. Movies like Ben Hur, Dracula and James Bond were shown in private soundproof cinemas.
The young Kim was obsessed with model planes and ships, but he also had a real vehicle and a real gun – a car his father had modified so that he could drive it at age seven and a Colt .45 pistol that he wore on his hip when he was eleven.
Even as a young child he was being groomed for leadership. “The boy grew up thinking he was special,” notes the author.
His eighth birthday was spent not in the company of other children but dressed in a black suit and bow tie as deferential high-level officials offered him bouquets of flowers.
But while Kim was shaped by his dysfunctional childhood, it was perhaps his strong personality that won his father’s favour over older half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, a rebellious playboy later exiled to Macau, and Kim Jong Chol, a second older brother who was closer in age but introverted and creative.
One incident recalled by Kenji Fujimoto, a Japanese chef who worked for years in the Kim household, appeared to betray an early streak of ruthlessness.
When he first met the then six-year-old Kim, who was wearing a miniature military uniform, the child refused to shake his hand and glared at him with “sharp eyes” that seemed to say, “You abhorrent Japanese,” he said.
Kim was just 12 when he was packed off to school in Bern, Switzerland in 1996, sporting a “pudding bowl haircut” and wearing brand-name tracksuits and Nike shoes.
He was given the fake name “Pak Un” and he and Yong Chol initially lived with their maternal aunt, Ko Yong Suk, and her husband, Ri Gang, who pretended to be their parents before they defected to the US two years later.
Kim had limited academic abilities and a quick temper, according to his former classmates.
The adolescent, who would proceed as an adult to have his uncle and his half-brother killed, was known to lash out at his peers, kicking them in the shins and spitting, when they spoke in German, a language he struggled with.
Basketball was an obsession, and when he took to the court in his authentic Chicago Bulls shirt with Michael Jordan’s number – 23 – his competitive side came out. He was said to be aggressive and often indulged in trash talk.
A fake Brazilian passport, under the name Josef Pwag, allowed him to travel around Europe anonymously. Family photo albums show a young Kim swimming in French Riviera, dining in Italy and enjoyed Euro Disney in Paris.
At home in the calm suburb of Liebefeld, his aunt tried to create a normal family environment. “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,” she told the author.
However, far from making the future leader more open-minded, his formative teenage years in Switzerland, Ms Fifield surmises that it “taught him that if he were to live in the outside world, he would have been entirely unremarkable. A nobody,” she explains in a Politico article.
“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.”
While Kim learned a Western curriculum that included lessons on Martin Luther King Jr and Nelson Mandela, he also studied the French Revolution as an example of how a society can change.
His class were taught that the revolution began because of the population’s unhappiness that living standards, having started to improve, did not continue to rise.
“Did Kim Jong Un remember his lessons on the French Revolution from his time at school in Switzerland?” asks the book. “If he was to keep a grip on this totalitarian state and head off possible dissent, he needed to maintain a sense that life was getting better.”
It goes on to describe his anointing as successor in 2010 and his early years in power where he made efforts to instill fear in the population and the elites as he built up his nuclear weapons programme, most notably by ruthlessly executing Jang Song-thaek in 2013.
Kim believed Jang was flaunting his influence with China and did not trust his relationship to his estranged half-brother Kim Jong-nam, who was also educated in Switzerland and had never readjusted to the hermit kingdom.
Jong-nam lived in exile in Macau and, the book claims, was a CIA informant – a factor which could have precipitated his horrific assassination with a lethal VX toxin in Kuala Lumpur airport in 2017.
But Kim’s ruthlessness did not blind him to the need to improve living standards in North Korea, particularly among the millennial generation.
North Koreans under Kim’s rule have more freedom to make money through their own enterprise and, in the capital at least, can use it to buy smartphones or dine out on pizzas and cappuccinos.
Over the past few weeks, experts have speculated as to whether public grumbling prompted Kim’s abrupt postponement of the Mass Games, a socialist spectacle in Pyongyang’s May Day stadium that features over 100,000 performers in synchronised acrobatic and gymnastic displays.
The participation of thousands of children, after months of gruelling practice, has been strongly criticised outside the country, and led to discontent among parents, some of whom try to bribe their children out of it.
“It’s a waste of time, students are distracted from their classes. Kim Jong Un may have decided to get children back to school,” said Andrei Lankov, a professor at Kookmin University in Seoul. “Kim Jong-un is worried about the impact it has on basic education standards.”
Christopher Richardson, an Australian academic and North Korea expert, believes the sudden shutdown of the Games illustrates the dilemma faced by the Kim regime as it struggles to keep a tight grip on power in the modern era.
“They know that they are torn between a rock and a hard place. If they reform, they are going to collapse but if they continue rattling on unchanging then they are going to be increasingly brittle too,” he said.
“How do they navigate between these twin forces. There is a degree of paralysis in Pyongyang over not really knowing what to do.”