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Who Will Succeed Kim Jong Il?

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Kim Jong Il's eldest son, Jong Nam, was for a time viewed as a likely heir but apparently bungled his chances in 2001 by trying to sneak into Japan under a fake Chinese name on a bogus Dominican Republic passport. He told Japanese immigration officials he wanted to visit Tokyo Disneyland. Interviewed briefly last month in the Chinese gambling enclave of Macau by Japanese television, Jong Nam said he had heard reports that his younger brother, Jong Un, had been chosen as successor but couldn't comment because that "is a very sensitive question."

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Focused and Competitive

Kim Jong Un has not been seen in public since his apparent time in Switzerland. Neither his name nor his photograph has ever appeared in North Korean media. After leaving Europe, he is reported to have attended Pyongyang's Kim Il Sung Military University, an officer training school, but virtually nothing else is known about him.

A senior U.S. official says he appears to have "the same interests as most 26-year-olds," noting that these do not generally involve nuclear strategy.

If Liebefeld's former student Pak Un is indeed Kim Jong Un, the memories of his former friends and teachers here offer a sketch of his character. He first started school after the summer holidays in 1998, a time when it looked as if North Korea might soon collapse. At about the same time, Kim Jong Il launched a secret program to produce highly enriched uranium for a nuclear bomb.

During his first few months in Liebefeld, Pak Un attended a remedial language course for foreign students with poor German. A swift learner, he soon switched to a regular class, said Studer, the education official, who described the boy as "well-integrated, diligent and ambitious." Friends recalled that Pak Un spoke fluent, if sometimes ungrammatical, German but struggled with the Swiss dialect. He also knew English.

A video of a school music class he attended shows a lithe, intense-looking Asian boy wearing black sweat pants, Nike Air Jordan shoes and a long-sleeved black sports shirt. He sways uncomfortably while classmates pound African drums and beat tambourines. Though generally quiet in class and sometimes awkward, particularly around girls, Pak Un showed a different personality on the basketball court, former friends recalled. He fell in with a group of mostly immigrant kids who shared his love of the National Basketball Association. Kovacevic, who shot hoops with the North Korean most days, said Pak Un was a fiercely competitive player.

"He was very explosive. He could make things happen. He was the playmaker," said Kovacevic, who now works as a tech specialist in the Swiss army. "If I wasn't sure I could make a shot, I always knew he could."

Marco Imhof, another Swiss basketball buddy, said the Korean was tough and fast, good at both shooting and dribbling. "He hated to lose. Winning was very important," recalled Imhof. Pak Un also liked action films featuring hand-to-hand fighting, particularly those starring the Hong Kong kung fu star Jackie Chan, and played combat games on a Sony PlayStation.

This picture of a focused, competitive young man matches what until now has been the only firsthand account of Kim Jong Un. That was provided by a Japanese sushi chef who claims to have worked in Pyongyang as a cook for the Kim family. The chef, who wrote a book on his experiences in Japanese under the pseudonym Kenji Fujimoto, described the boy as strong-willed, proud and "boss-like."

During his time in Liebefeld, friends remembered, Pak Un showed scant interest in politics and never vented publicly against Americans. Instead, he worshiped American basketball stars. He spent hours doing meticulous pencil drawings of Chicago Bulls superstar Michael Jordan.

At his spacious apartment on Kirchstrasse, said one friend who visited, Pak Un had a room filled with American basketball paraphernalia. He proudly showed off photographs of himself standing with Toni Kukoc of the Chicago Bulls and Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers. It is unclear where the pictures were taken. On at least one occasion, a car from the North Korean Embassy drove Pak Un to Paris to watch an NBA exhibition game.

With no parents in sight, Pak Un was watched over and waited on by North Koreans who appeared to combine the duties of servants, guardians and guards. A pair of Korean women, says Imhof, often observed him playing basketball and sometimes videotaped the action. A Korean-speaking man frequently hovered nearby. "It was a bit strange," Imhof said. But he figured this was just "a Korean thing."

Pak Un's ultimate guardian in Switzerland was Ri Tcheul, North Korea 's veteran ambassador in Bern. Ri has served in the Swiss capital for 21 years, making him the city's longest-serving foreign envoy. Over the years, he has turned the embassy into the nerve center for Pyongyang's sometimes furtive contacts with businessmen, bankers, officials and aid workers from across Europe.

Studer, the local education official, said school authorities never had reason to question whether Pak Un really was the son of an embassy employee. Now that he's gone, he added, "there is no need to go into the matter."

Pak Un's former friends are more curious and say they'd like to know the real identity of the teenager they used to hang out with. They last saw him in 2000, when he suddenly vanished. He left no address and didn't tell anyone where he was going.

"We thought he was ill or something and would soon be back. He never came to school again. He totally disappeared," said Kovacevic, his former friend. He and others asked teachers what had happened. They had no idea either. "We were just playing basketball -- now he is going to be a dictator," said Kovacevic. "I hope he is a good leader, but dictators are usually not that good."


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