North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was an entirely unremarkable child who was embarrassed by having to answer questions in class, according to a new book about the secretive dictator and his family.
Kim’s academic shortcomings were so severe that they may have informed his future style of ruthless leadership, according to an excerpt from Anna Fifield’s “The Great Successor:The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un,” which Politico published on Wednesday. The book from the Beijing bureau chief for The Washington Post is on sale now.
The excerpt details Kim’s formative years in Bern, the capital of Switzerland, where he attended an international school with his brother Kim Jong Chol, and lived with his aunt.
It paints a picture of Kim as a forthright but not particularly academic child, who struggled to learn German and found it difficult to express himself in lessons.
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Such were Kim’s frustrations when he first moved to Europe, he attacked his fellow classmates. “He kicked us in the shins and even spat at us,” one former classmate said, according to the excerpt.
João Micaelo, a Portuguese student who sat next to Kim at school when he first moved to Switzerland in the mid-1990s, told Fifield that he and the future dictator were in the same class, and bonded because neither was “particularly academic.”
“In sixth grade, classes were split into two streams, and both Un and João were sent to the group of academically weaker students,” the excerpt said.
‘If he were to live in the outside world, he would have been entirely unremarkable’
While not academically gifted as a child, Micaelo said Kim was “very decisive.”
Kim’s lack of academic prowess, the book reports, may have been a driver of his future authoritarian leadership style, which possibly allows him to mask his intellectual shortcomings.
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When he became leader in 2010 after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, it was speculated that his time spent in the West as a child may push him open North Korea up to the rest of the world, but Kim has done quite the opposite. He has crushed dissent to his regime internally, as well as antagonized major Western nations with consistent missile tests, and North Korea remains as secretive as ever.
This could be down, in part at least, to Kim’s years in Switzerland, Fifield theorizes, during which he realized that by Western standards he was unremarkable.
“Kim’s years in Switzerland, during which he was enrolled in both a tiny private school and a small German-speaking public school, would have 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,” Fifield wrote.
The book details what appears to be a fairly normal experience for a teen in the West, with Kim reportedly a huge fan of basketball – even sleeping with a basketball sometimes – and enjoying playing video games, watching action movies, and wearing tracksuits.
“We lived in a normal home and acted like a normal family. I acted like their mother,” Kim’s aunt, who now lives in the US, said.
“Their friends would come over, and I would make them snacks,” Ko Yong Suk told Fifield. “It was a very normal childhood with birthday parties and gifts and Swiss kids coming over to play.”