NICE, France—The world knows North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong Un as a ruthless dictator prone to testing ballistic missiles while playing a game of nuclear chicken with President Donald Trump. He’s so cold-blooded he had his uncle and half-brother, among others, assassinated.
Kim is as unpredictable as he is deadly. Witness his announcement Tuesday that North Korea would participate in the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Experts said that Kim may be trying to do an end run around President Trump by reaching out to the South in the hope of breaking its ties with the U.S.
Baby-faced evil genius and master strategist at 34? (His birthday was Monday.)
Not to his old friends in Switzerland where Kim was a student in the late 1990s. To them he’s still just the kid who had a good sense of humor, obsessed over basketball, especially the Chicago Bulls, and got along with everyone despite flashes of temper.
Even after almost 20 years, Joao Micaelo, now a chef at a Bern restaurant, remembers fondly his former classmate at the German-speaking Liebefeld-Steinhölzli public school in Koeniz, just south of Bern. Like everyone else who knew Kim from 1998 to late 2000, Micaelo thought he was “Pak Un,” the son of a staffer at the North Korean embassy. One day Kim told Micaelo who he was, but Micaelo thought he was making it up.
“He was a good friend,” Micaelo told The Daily Beast. “We had a lot of fun together. He was a good guy. Lots of kids liked him. I don’t know anything about his life today. All I know is the guy I knew in school. He loved basketball. We played a lot together. I’d like to say to him, if you ever have the time, please contact me again so we can catch up.”
Kim had an enviable collection of Nike sneakers, and even though he was only 5-foot-6 and slightly overweight, he was a good basketball player.
“He was funny,” former classmate Marco Imhof of Bern said. “Always good for a laugh. He also hated to lose. Winning was very important.”
“He had a sense of humor and got on well with everyone, even those pupils who came from countries who were enemies of North Korea,” another former classmate told the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag. “Politics were a taboo subject at school. We argued about [soccer] football, not politics.”
If those comments don’t square with the popular view of Kim as the wacky, dangerous ruler of North Korea, blame Switzerland. The Kim family has long had a strong Swiss connection and as a result a window on the West that means many of them know very well what life is like outside of the Hermit Kingdom.
“But don’t think that just because Kim spent time in Switzerland that it would change him,” says Gordon Chang, the author of Nuclear Showdown: North Korea Takes On the World, and a Daily Beast contributor. “This guy has the same dictator gene as his grandfather. He is also very aware of what a balancing act it is to run North Korea. The toughest thing about heading a totalitarian regime is making sure you don’t get killed yourself. He is heartless. He is ruthless. And he has to be.”
In addition to Kim Jong Un, his older brother, Kim Jong Chul, and younger sister Kim Yo Jong studied in Swiss schools in and around Bern between 1992 and 2000. His older half-brother Kim Jong Nam, brutally poisoned at Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur airport last year, studied in Moscow and then landed in Geneva.
“It’s one of the great mysteries why Kim Jong Nam studied in Geneva and learned French and the other kids who came later were sent to Bern where it’s German-speaking,” says Michael Madden, a North Korea expert affiliated with Johns Hopkins who runs North Korea Leadership Watch. “All I can think is that North Korea is always a little bit on the run. They like to change things up.”
The Kim family began building what Madden calls a “necessary network” in Paris in the 1970s and it maintains a home there to this day.
“You can’t send the kids of a dictator abroad without a network, people and institutions in place to help take care of them,” Madden said. “The Kims started all of this in Paris.”
Last year, Kim Jong Un’s aunt, Ko Yong Suk, told The Washington Post, that she and her husband took care of Kim and his two siblings in Switzerland. Kim Jong Chol arrived in 1992; Kim Jong Un came in 1996, when he was 12.
“We lived in a normal house and acted like a normal family. I acted like their mother,” Ko said about her time in Bern. “I encouraged [Kim Jong Un] to bring his friends home, because we wanted them to live a normal life. I made snacks for the kids. They ate cake and played with Legos.”
During school breaks, Ko and her husband took the kids skiing in the Swiss Alps, swimming on the French Riviera, and to Italy.
In Bern, Kim liked playing with machinery in addition to obsessing about basketball and Michael Jordan.
“He wasn’t a troublemaker, but he was short-tempered and had a lack of tolerance,” Ko recalled. “When his mother tried to tell him off for playing with these things too much and not studying enough, he wouldn’t talk back, but he would protest in other ways, like going on a hunger strike.”
He had begun showing signs of a complicated personality, and he reportedly was caught once with a BDSM porn magazine. It’s not clear how significant that is, if it is true at all.
A local education official confirmed to Reuters that a student known only as Pak Un who was registered as the child of a North Korean embassy worker attended the Steinhoelzli school from 1998 until late 2000. “Pak Un attended a class for non-German speaking pupils but then quickly moved to another class,” said Ueli Studer in a 2011 report. “He was described as well-integrated, diligent and ambitious. His hobby was basketball.”
Madden said that Kim and his siblings were known to be “overprotected” while studying in Switzerland. “They had these women hovering around them all the time who would take them to the hospital if they had as much as a sniffle. People around them thought it was bizarre.”
Kim suddenly vanished in the middle of the school year in 2000 and was not heard from again. He returned to North Korea. He succeeded his father, Kim Jong Il, as the country’s leader when he died of a heart attack at age 70 in 2011.
Kim has not been known to return to Switzerland since his teenage years but his sojourn there reportedly had a major impact on him.
In 2012, Kim oversaw construction of the Masikryong ski resort near Wonsan, Kangwon Province, at a reported price of at least $35 million with some estimates as high as $300 million. It was said to be inspired by his time in Switzerland (and remains largely deserted in a country where at least 40 percent of the population is impoverished and starving). He even tried to buy Swiss ski lifts for the resort but was turned down because of international sanctions.
Kim has been known to dole out Swiss watches to senior party officials and one South Korean newspaper reported that in 2013 Kim took a large swath of land in Sepo, Kangwon Province, and turned it into a pasture and an alpine farm.
Whatever taste Kim had of Western democracy, however, had little impact.
“He turned out to be more vicious and ruthless than his father,” Su Mi Terry, a former CIA analyst and leading North Korea expert who is now with the Center for Strategic and International Studies told The Daily Beast.
“I’ve lost count of how many people he’s had purged or killed. Look how he had his own half-brother killed and his uncle executed. You don’t kill your family like that. The way he had his uncle dragged out and murdered. There are no other examples in North Korean history like that.”
Kim’s chief goal, she said, is to gain international acceptance as a nuclear weapons power and avoid the fate of Muammar Kaddafi or Saddam Hussein (who gave up their nuclear programs, or lost them, only to be overthrown).
“He’s pretty much had to learn on the job,” she said, “and so far he’s more than shown an instinct for the position.”