Who Will Succeed Kim Jong Il?
Thursday, July 16, 2009
LIEBEFELD, Switzerland -- In August 1998, as famine reached a terrible climax in North Korea, the destitute Asian nation enrolled a shy teenager in a Swiss state school. He arrived with a fake name, a collection of genuine, top-of-the-line Nike sneakers and a passion for American basketball.
"We only dreamed about having such shoes. He was wearing them," recalled Nikola Kovacevic, a former schoolmate of the curiously well-heeled North Korean. Each pair, estimates Kovacevic, cost more than $200 -- at least four times the average monthly salary in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, where perhaps 1 million people died as a result of food shortages in the mid- and late 1990s.
Today, the student -- who vanished from this sleepy Swiss district as mysteriously as he appeared -- is a key figure in a puzzle that U.S. and Asian intelligence services are scrambling to solve: Who will lead nuclear-armed North Korea -- and where to -- once its gravely ill leader, Kim Jong Il, passes from the scene?
The answer is of vital importance to Washington, which has about 25,000 troops in South Korea, on guard against any resumption of a conflict frozen -- but never formally ended -- by a Korean War armistice accord in 1953. Who rules North Korea will decide whether Seoul, Tokyo and perhaps even Hawaii risk attack from a nation that has tested two nuclear devices, the most recent in May, and built up an arsenal of missiles and long-range artillery. The Pentagon has sent missile-defense systems to Hawaii just in case. North Korea marked July 4 this year by test-firing seven more rockets.
North Korea shrouds the biographies of its rulers and their offspring in a fog of fiction and silence. "It is pretty amazing how very little real information we have," said Victor Cha, who served as a Korea expert on the National Security Council in the Bush administration.
A rare insight into this sealed world is offered by Swiss recollections of the young North Korean who, from 1998 until late 2000, lived here in Liebefeld at No. 10 Kirchstrasse, a sedate suburban street with two pizza joints, a Credit Suisse bank and a Coop supermarket. He was around 17 when he abruptly left in the middle of the school year, apparently to return to Pyongyang.
There are many signs that he may now be the next leader of North Korea -- 26-year-old Kim Jong Un, the third and youngest son of Kim Jong Il.
Known as "Pak Un" to his teachers at Liebefeld-Steinhölzli Schule, a German-speaking state school, he was registered with Swiss authorities as the son of an employee at North Korea's embassy in the nearby city of Bern, Switzerland's capital, according to Ueli Studer, director of education in the local administration.
Throughout Pak Un's time in Liebefeld, however, neither friends nor teachers ever met the parents. "I never saw his father or mother," said the school's principal, Peter Burri, recalling how they repeatedly failed to show up for parents' night. Attending in their place, Burri said, were assorted North Koreans who apologized for the parents' absence and said this was due to their inability to speak German.
A more likely reason: The boy's father didn't work in Bern at the embassy but was more than 5,000 miles away in Pyongyang.
Maria Micaelo, the mother of one of Pak Un's closest school friends, said the North Korean teenager once confided to her son, Joao, that his father was the leader of North Korea. She recalled that she dismissed the claim as a fanciful teenage boast, but had second thoughts when her son saw pictures of Kim Jong Il on television and told her that he'd seen the same man in a photograph with Pak Un. Joao Micaelo, now a cook in Vienna, did not respond to repeated e-mail messages seeking comment.
Kongdan Oh Hassig, an expert on North Korea at the Alexandria-based Institute for Defense Analyses, which does research for the Pentagon, says Pak Un certainly appears to be Kim Jong Il's third son, Kim Jong Un, adding that members of North Korea's elite usually use bogus names outside their homeland. Pak is a very common Korean surname akin to Smith.