By Andrew Higgins
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 16, 2009; A01
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.
When reports of a Pyongyang succession plan began to leak out of North Korea this year, heir apparent Kim Jong Un was widely reported to have attended the International School of Berne, a private, English-speaking establishment near the North Korean Embassy in the Swiss capital.
But, North Korea watchers say, that student -- who went by the name "Pak Chol" -- was most likely Kim Jong Un's older brother, Kim Jong Chol. Both were born to Kim Jong Il's third wife, a former dancer who died in 2004. The North Korean leader has another son, his oldest, by another wife. He also has four daughters. The oldest son, Kim Jong Nam, also studied for a time in Switzerland under an alias, as well as in the Soviet Union.
Swiss authorities say they don't monitor North Korean students and so can't say if they have identities other than those they provide. "We don't know if a son of Kim Jong Il has been in Switzerland," said Sebastian Hueber, spokesman for the Federal Department of Defense, Civil Protection and Sport, which controls Switzerland's domestic and foreign intelligence agencies. Only foreign residents who pose a "direct threat" to Switzerland are scrutinized by security services, said Hueber: "We are not a dictatorship."'Question of Culture'
The Swiss education of North Korea's apparent future leader raises a tantalizing question: Did it open his horizons beyond the narrow, xenophobic worldview of his homeland, where schools bombard pupils with the evils of "U.S. imperialism" and instill unquestioning obedience to a highly centralized state headed by a leader-for-life? This is in stark contrast to Switzerland, a democratic federal state in which power is widely diffused, where all laws can be challenged by citizens through referendum, and where the presidency is a rotating position that changes every year.
"There is a big difference between attending a school in a free country and a school where everyone has to salute," said Studer, the local education director. Schooling, he added, is a "question of culture," and a North Korean schooled in Liebefeld "will take something away that will have an effect on his life." Pak Un, along with fellow students, had three classes a week on Swiss history from 1291 and the evolution of the country's modern system of governance known as "direct democracy," as well as current events, which in 2000 included the U.S. election campaign.
The North Korean Embassy in Bern, housed in an elegant villa festooned with geraniums in the capital's most expensive neighborhood, declined to comment. Some analysts in South Korea have expressed uncertainty about whether Kim Jong Un has definitely been selected as successor, noting that no official announcement has yet been made by Pyongyang.
A propaganda display on the embassy's ivy-covered wall obliquely addresses the issue of succession, stressing the reinvigorating vitality of youth, a frequent theme of North Korean propaganda in recent months as the regime prepares for a transfer of power. Featuring photographs of young soldiers, young athletes and Youth League zealots, it shows Kim Jong Il as he "hands over the torch of revolution to young vanguards of Juche," the regime's idiosyncratic state ideology.
Since North Korea's founding in 1945, power has passed exclusively from father to son. A hereditary dynasty, it mixes communist cant with Confucian emphasis on the primacy of family ties. Its founder, Kim Il Sung, known as the Great Leader, fabricated a patriotic lineage stretching back to the mid-19th century. After his death in 1994, power passed to his eldest son, the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il, who, according to his own falsified biography, was born on a Mount Paektu, a sacred mountain. He was really born in the Soviet Union, where he was known as Yuri.
With Kim Jong Il, 67, now ailing, North Korea is preparing to hand the baton to the third generation -- and gearing up for a new round of hagiography and mythmaking. A South Korean cable television channel, YTN, reported Monday that Kim Jong Il is suffering from pancreatic cancer, but the report offered no details.
Last month, according to Open Radio for North Korea, a Seoul-based group with extensive contacts in North Korea, Pyongyang began holding lectures for selected audiences to trumpet the "greatness" of Kim Jong Un, the heir apparent. He was celebrated as a "genius of literary arts" and tireless patriot who "is working without sleep or rest" to promote North Korea as a nuclear superpower, according to the organization's account of the sessions. Among his purported feats: He so inspired North Korea's national soccer squad that it recently qualified for the World Cup finals, the first time the team has done so since 1966.
A confidential report prepared in May by the Open Source Center, a U.S. agency that monitors foreign media outlets, said North Korea began to prepare the way for a hereditary successor to Kim Jong Il in 2001 with an essay in a party newspaper titled "A Brilliant Succession." It didn't name anyone but defined father-son succession as a "pure" tradition, and warned that any revolution that doesn't follow tradition is "dead."
This subtle campaign accelerated sharply, according to the report, after Kim Jong Il fell seriously ill, possibly suffering a stroke, last August and vanished for months. U.S. analysts, seeking clues in mountains of North Korean propaganda, noted increasingly frequent mentions of the importance of "bloodlines" and detected veiled endorsements of Kim Jong Un.
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."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."