Tuesday 23 July 2019

His own car aged 7 and a pistol at 11: how Kim Jong-un rose to power


Dictator: Kim Jong-un had his brother and uncle murdered. Photo: KCNA via REUTERS
Dictator: Kim Jong-un had his brother and uncle murdered. Photo: KCNA via REUTERS

Nicola Smith

A biography of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has revealed fresh details of the privileged but cloistered childhood that paved the way to his tyrannical rule.

According to 'The Great Successor: The Secret Rise and Rule of Kim Jong-un' by 'The Washington Post' journalist Anna Fifield, Kim's lonely early years were spent in walled luxury compounds with three-­metre gates in the capital, Pyongyang, and at the family beach home in the coastal city of Wonsan.

His father, Kim Jong-il, then the regime's leader, ensured he had Super Mario video ­games, pinball machines and endless electronic gadgets. He watched 'Ben-Hur', and Dracula and James Bond films in private cinemas.

Young Kim was obsessed with model planes and ships but also had a real car his father had modified for him to drive when he was seven - and a Colt .45 pistol he wore on his hip when he was 11.

"The boy grew up thinking he was special," said Fifield. His eighth birthday was spent in a black suit and bow tie as deferential officials offered him bouquets of flowers.

While Kim was shaped by his dysfunctional childhood, it was perhaps his strong personality that won his father's favour over his older half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, a playboy later exiled to Macau, and Kim Jong-chol, a second older brother who was closer in age but introverted and creative.

At 12, Kim was sent to school in Bern, Switzerland, in 1996, sporting a "pudding-bowl haircut". He had limited academic abilities and a quick temper, according to classmates.

The adolescent - who as an adult would have Kim Jong-nam as well as his uncle killed - was known to lash out at his peers, kicking them in the shins and spitting when they spoke in German, a language with which he struggled.

He was said to be aggressive on the basketball court, where he wore a treasured Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls shirt.

A fake Brazilian passport, under the name Josef Pwag, allowed him to roam Europe anonymously. Family photos show a young Kim swimming on the French Riviera and visiting Euro Disney in Paris.

At home in Bern, 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 Fifield.

However, the author believes his years in Switzerland "taught him that if he were to live in the outside world, he would have been entirely unremarkable, a nobody".

"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," she said.


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