What Switzerland, basketball and nuclear warheads have in common: Kim Jong Un


Kim Jong Un claps as he attends the unveiling ceremony of two statues of former leaders Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang on April 13, 2012.


Ed Jones

NEW YORK — It was a cold, gray afternoon. Snow fell heavily on the line of cars following the hearse. Video footage showed women in dark green uniforms wailing loudly.

A somber young man dressed in all black walked slowly on the right side of the hearse, his hand extended in a steady salute.

It was Dec. 19, 2011, the day of Kim Jong Il’s funeral and the day his son Kim Jong Un came to power in North Korea. The young Kim walked through the cold, his face frozen in a stiff frown.

The world outside Pyongyang knew very little about Kim Jong Un. There were varying reports about his age. Before his father’s death, media outlets circulated the only photograph they had of Kim Jong Un — as a pudgy-cheeked 11-year-old.

In this information void, Western analysts scrambled to respond to a barrage of media queries, all of them wanting to know: “What’s he like?” and in particular, “Will he be less authoritarian than his father?”

In a diplomatic example of hope springs eternal, the answer offered by many pundits was “yes.” Yes, Kim Jong Un, educated in the West, would undoubtedly be less authoritarian, more inclined to give his countrymen greater freedoms, the pundits predicted.

As it turns out, more caution was called for — like the honest statement of Victor Cha, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in a December 2011 interview with CNN.

“No one has any idea of what comes next,” said Cha. North Korea, he said, now faced “a leadership vacuum in which a kid is basically trying to run the country."

So where did so much of the punditry of 2011 go so wrong on Kim Jong Un?

It all began with his school biography. Kim Jong Un was educated in Switzerland, where he learned English, German, and some French. He befriended students from all over Europe, according to news reports at the time he took office. Though some of his classmates remembered him as shy, they said he was, for the most part, a normal kid.

CNN reported Michael Jordan was Kim’s hero. He played NBA video games night and day. It was only natural to wonder if his affinity for American sports could spill over into politics, too.

“There was a lot of speculation he’d be the person to lead North Koreans in a liberal direction,” said Dr. Charles Armstrong, a Korea expert at Columbia University’s School for International and Public Affairs (SIPA). “He indicated when he first came to power and gave speeches that suggested he’d engage in agricultural reform and decentralized economic policies.”

The speeches led to more upbeat assessments, as did some visible changes.

In one symbolic break with the past, Kim was often photographed in public with his wife, Ri Sol-ju — unlike Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung, who kept their wives hidden from public view.

A more substantive change was the new leader’s greater tolerance for the black market. An Economist report noted that more goods from the outside world — including Western movies smuggled in on flashdrives — were making their way into North Korea, peddled by enterprising Chinese at an informal, and technically illegal, black market along the Yalu River. Many of the North Korean border guards at the river make trades themselves, or take bribes to allow others the opportunity.

Then there was the tantalizing pronouncement of Kenji Fujimoto, the Kim family’s former chef who now resides in Japan. Fujimoto told the Telegraph in August that Kim — disturbed that his country had so little food in its markets compared with China and Japan — was planning to implement economic reforms à la China in the 1990s.

The new leader, said Andrei Lankov, a Russian expert on Korean politics, speaking last August from South Korea’s Kookmin University, “is not merely distancing himself from his father's regime, but is doing so with remarkable boldness and speed.”

All that optimism came crashing down on Dec. 12, just one year after the death of Kim’s father, when Kim Jong Un ordered the test launch of a long-range rocket to show North Korea had the capacity to blast off an intercontinental ballistic missile.

Two months later, North Korea conducted an underground nuclear test, its third since 2006, and with each passing week, it seems, Pyongyang’s threats grow more sinister.

Now the world is left to wonder, what happened to the basketball-loving, Swiss-educated young man?

Dr. Alexandre Mansourov, a visiting scholar at Johns Hopkins University’s US Korea Institute, suggested that the pundits were not wrong a year ago. Kim did try to push reforms, but failed, he said.

Now all the military generals are telling Kim “I told you so,” said Mansourov. “Now he’s taking the road of least resistance domestically by siding with all the hardliners. He revert[ed] to traditional North Korean policy both domestically and internationally.”

Kim was the third of three sons of Kim Jong Il. The oldest, Kim Jong Nam, reportedly lives in Macau, where he nurtures a gambling addiction, while middle son Kim Jong Chol was passed over for succession because he was “too girly,” according to Fujimoto.

Analysts now say that the father may have recognized in Kim Jong Un a worthy successor to his authoritarian rule — someone ready and willing to continue North Korea’s nuclear aspirations.

Or, he could be using this latest bout of threats as a tool to solicit food aid from the US.

“What he doesn’t want is to be ignored,” Armstrong said. “And that is essentially what the Obama administration has done for the last five years.”

It’s enough, said Kong Dan-oh, a Korea expert at the Virginia-based Institute for Defense Analyses, to make the world yearn for Kim’s father; better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.

Kim Jong Il, however fanatical he may have seemed, was a known quantity, experts said. He was rational by comparison to his son, described by Oh as “like a young puppy jumping around conducting major decisions … and unfortunately no one says ‘no’ to him.”

“For the first time we’re actually a little bit scared,” said Oh. “We knew Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung very well — but this guy, we don’t.”

Katie Campo is a student at the Columbia Journalism School in New York City. She previously worked for the US Department of State in Khartoum, Sudan. Katie wrote her undergraduate thesis on China’s nuclear nonproliferation policies and North Korea’s six-party talks.