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All Headlines 10:36 June 25, 2009


N. Korea's Successor-designate Kim Jong-un's Early Life and Personality

By Cheong Seong-chang, Senior Research Fellow, the Sejong Institute, South Korea

There has been an increasing level of interest in the early life and personality of Kim Jong-un ever since he was designated the heir apparent of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il. However, very little is known about Kim Jong-il's third and youngest son. So far, public knowledge has been limited to the testimony of Kenji Fujimoto, a Japanese chef who spent 11 years in North Korea as Kim Jong-il's personal chef, and accounts of Kim Jong-un's teenage years pieced together by students and teachers at the International School of Berne in Switzerland.

Although what we know about Kim Jong-un is limited, it is possible to grasp a better understanding of him by combining information from various sources. Testimonies from defectors and other sources who can speak about changes and trends in North Korea's domestic political circles are especially useful for understanding Kim Jong-un's characteristics as both an individual and a leader.

According to sources well informed about the domestic situation in North Korea, Kim Jong-il was most fond of his third and youngest son. Though Kim Jong-un is still relatively young, he is known to possess leadership qualities and a strong desire for power.

Until as recently as the early 2000s, Kim Jong-un was not the only person mentioned as a potential heir, mainly because of his young age. But starting in the mid-2000s, rumors grew that he was being positioned as a successor.

Kim Jong-un was born on Jan. 8, 1983 to Kim Jong-il and Ko Yong-hui, a former North Korean resident of Japan who emmigrated to the North and worked as a dancer in the Pyongyang Mansudae Art Troupe. Kim Jong-il reportedly met Ko around 1975, and the two began living together a year later.

Some analysts in Japan and South Korea believe Ko is the daughter of Ko Tae-mun, a former North Korean resident of Japan who founded the (North) Korean Judoist Association in 1990. But she was found to be the daughter of a North Korean resident in Japan named Ko Kyong-taek who passed away in 1999. Ko also gave birth to a daughter named Kim Yo-jong, also known as Kim Il-sun, in 1987. Kim Jong-chol was born in 1980.

North Korea's Concern About Succession

North Korea has reportedly been shown deep interest in the succession issue since the late 1990s. The movement to designate the next heir to Kim Jong-il started with the personality cult of Ko Yong-hui. Ko's military-based personality cult and her constant interest and influence in the succession issue has undoubtedly served to reinforce her two sons' status in North Korea's ruling circles.

Ko's personality cult began in 1998 and developed into a full-blown campaign in 2002 under the instruction of special police forces in charge of private affairs administration. In classified data from North Korea, Ko Yong-hui was known as the "respected mother" and "respected mother of Pyongyang," "one with comrade Kim Jong-suk, a female hero in the anti-Japanese struggle," and a "benevolent teacher leading military servicemen of the People's Army by the hand to the only way for loyalty and great achievements." (Kim Jong-suk is Kim Jong-il's natural mother). The lecture data published by the North in August 2002 shows that Ko was involved in various military affairs, ranging from political education to even military exercises.

With Ko being respected in North Korea as the "mother of the nation," her two sons, Kim Jong-chol and Kim Jong-un, are in a more favorable position than Kim Jong-nam, the eldest son of Kim Jong-il, as promising successors.

Ko Yong-suk, Ko Yong-hui's younger sister, who successfully sought asylum in the United States in May 1998 along with her husband, Pak Kon, reportedly told U.S. intelligence authorities that Ko Yong-hui had made preparations to designate one of her two sons as the heir to Kim Jong-il since the early 1990s by winning the favor of Kim Yong-sun, party secretary of South Korean affairs. According to Ko Yong-suk, Ko Yong-hui intensified her efforts after Kim Jong-nam was arrested in Japan in 2001 for his use of a fake passport and was banished from the country a few days later. Kim Yong-sun, however, died in October 2003 after a traffic accident.

Seven months later, in May 2004, Ko Yong-hui died in France while being treated for cancer. She was buried in North Korea the next month. However, it was not until August that year that the news of Ko's death reached Seoul. Some North Korea watchers in Seoul began to believe thereafter that Ko's death negatively affected Ko's scheme to make one of her sons Kim Jong-il's successor. With the death of their mother, Kim Jong-chol and Kim Jong-un lost their strongest political supporter. But Kim Jong-il still favors Kim Jong-chol and Kim Jong-un over his other sons, so there has been no significant change in Ko Yong-hui's original succession scheme.

Kim Jong-un's Early Life

In his book "Kim Jong-il's Chef," Kenji Fujimoto (a pseudonym) gives readers a rare glimpse into the life of Kim Jong-il's family, including Kim Jong-un. Fujimoto was Kim Jong-il's personal chef for 11 years from 1988. According to Fujimoto, Kim Jong-un showed leadership and a strong desire to win from his childhood. In contrast, Fujimoto describes Kim Jong-chol as a child who never got angry and had little ambition, making him inept to rule a country. At the end of a basketball game, Jong-chul would tell his team "Good job," whereas Jong-un would make his team members reflect on their mistakes, saying "Why did you pass the ball that way? Practice more!" The way Jong-un played basketball is an indicator of his desire to win and his "boss-like" qualities.

When Kim Jong-un was only 12 years old, Fujimoto has recollected that he burst out in anger at his younger sister who called him the "little older brother." This incident also shows how much Jong-un hated losing. After what happened that day, Fujimoto called Jong-chul the "big top comrade" and Jong-un "top comrade" (without the word "little" in front of the title). He was also apparently an all-star in sports and enjoyed watching movies like his father.

Kim Jong-un did not always come off as headstrong and competitive. At times, he showed a sensitive side that had the power to move people's feelings. Fujimoto recalls making a casual remark to Jong-un that he ran out of beer. A few days later, Jong-un showed up with two Heineken bottles stuffed in his pockets and gave them to Fujimoto to drink. Fujimoto wrote in his memoirs that he was "so thankful for Kim Jong-un's warm heart," so much so that he started to cry.

In regards to Kim Jong-un's study abroad experience, there are several mixups in the media that confuse Kim Jong-un's past with that of his brother Kim Jong-chul's. When compared to Fujimoto's book, a Jun. 14 article published by Japanese newspaper Mainichi Shimbun gives the most accurate report of Kim Jong-un's period abroad. According to this article, Kim Jong-un did not attend the International School of Berne. Rather, he attended a nearby public middle school under the name "Pak Un," a combination of his uncle Pak Gun's surname and the last syllable of his own name.

Kim Jong-un lived in Berne, Switzerland from the summer of 1996 to Jan. 2001. At first, Jong-un attended the International School of Berne like his brother, but dropped out a few months later and began attending the public middle school. According to his middle school records, Jong-un received supplemental instruction in German language at a nearby elementary school and transferred to the public school in Aug. 1998 at grade 7. He dropped out of school when he reached 9th grade in 2000.

Kim Jong-un's former math teacher and current principal of the middle school Peter Burri (52) said, "He worked enthusiastically on everything. He was good at mathematics, but his grades in English and German were also good." Jong-un's former homeroom teacher Simone Kuhn said that Kim was "quiet, and appeared as if he were hidden in a veil of mystery."

Kim Jong-un was fond of playing and watching basketball games, probably influenced by his elder brother, Kim Jong-chol. While attending school in Switzerland, Kim Jong-chol was a fan of Dennis Rodman, who had the highest number of rebounds per game in the National Basketball Association (NBA) for a record seven consecutive years from 1991-1997. Kim Jong-un reportedly often participated in basketball games wearing a Chicago Bulls T-shirt bearing Rodman's No. 9. Because Fujimoto was also fond of playing and watching basketball games, he acted as umpire when Kim Jong-un played basketball along with Ko Yong-suk's son, among others.

Fujimoto returned to Japan temporarily in 1996 and went to North Korea again two years later. According to his memoir, the North restructured the gymnasium into a basketball court furnished with the same equipment as the NBA exclusively for Kim Jong-chol and Kim Jong-un. He also said he had seen them shoot the ball in a wonderful way during a game with a women's team. Meeting them in 1998 for the first time in two years, Fujimoto said they became so much taller and muscular that he could hardly recognize them.

Kim Jong-un's Education on Military Affairs

Kim Jong-chol reportedly received his education on military affairs, including Juche-oriented military leadership, in a special class at the Kimilsung Military University from 2001 through April 2006. Kim Jong-un received the same education from 2002 through April 2007. The special military education for them was made at the request of their mother, Ko Yong-hui, who reportedly told Kim Jong-il that her sons should continue the tradition of military-first politics.

There is also an assertion that Kim Jong-un and Kim Jong-chol presented their own theories on Juche-oriented military leadership in a ceremony held after their military education and were applauded by their father Kim Jong-il. Starting in early 2007, the two sons began accompanying their father on his visits to military units and appearing in public functions. Noteworthy is the fact that they began to make their public appearances three years after the death of their mother, and at a time when Kim Jong-il had health problems.

Kim Jong-un is known to be approximately 175 cm tall and weigh around 90 kg due to lack of exercise. It has also been rumored that despite his young age, he suffers from hypertension and diabetic symptoms, and that his health problems so deteriorated in 2008 as to hamper his normal activities. There was also a report in August 2008 that he fell into critical condition following a motorcycle accident. However, more reliable sources say he was not seriously injured. The fact of the matter is that Kim Jong-un's health is not so bad as to endanger his prospects of becoming the successor.

If Kim Jong-il actually appointed his youngest son, Jong-un, to be his successor, Kim has undoubtedly decided that Jong-un's ability to command and lead is more essential for seizing and maintaining power than the mild character of his elder brother, Jong-chol. Fujimoto quoted Kim Jong-il as having often evaluated Kim Jong-chol negatively as far as leadership is concerned, saying, "He cannot make it because he resembles a girl." Fujimoto argued that Kim Jong-il most favored Kim Jong-un among his sons. Allegedly, Kim Jong-un's face is almost a carbon copy of his father's, and his body shape much resembles that of his father's. Some North Korea analysts have used Fujimoto's testimony as the core basis of their argument that Kim Jong-un is the most likely successor to Kim Jong-il.

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