Who Is Kim Jong Un? Who Really Knows?
It's been two years since Kim Jong Un effectively became North Korea's "Great Successor" and heir to the seat of power in the communist nation run by a family dynasty — a dynasty that began with his grandfather, Kim Il Sung (the "Great Leader") and continued with his father, Kim Jong Il (the "Dear Leader").
But in that time about the only new thing we know is that he's two years older and now thought to be in his late 20s. And, that he appears about to become at least the titular head of an impoverished nation that threatens its richer neighbor to the south with nuclear weapons
Other than that, you could pretty much reread this 2009 report from NPR's Anthony Kuhn, this 2010 story from NPR's Corey Flintoff and any number of other such stories from those years and be up to speed about Kim Jong Un. Still, with Saturday's death of his father, the world is watching anxiously to see what happens in North Korea and hoping to learn more about this Great Successor.
So, here is some biographical material about North Korea's latest mystery man. Note: Because so much of what we've heard from North Korea about its leaders in the past has obviously been fantastical (such as Kim Jong Il's ability to control the weather), everything that's been reported about Kim Jong Un has to be viewed skeptically:
-- "Jong Un is believed to have been educated in Switzerland, where he learned to ski, and to speak English, French and German." (From Anthony's 2009 report.)
-- "Analysts believe he is Kim Jong Il's son by his third wife (or consort — their marital status is unclear), a dancer named Ko Hyong Hui. ... He reportedly was disguised as the son of a North Korean embassy employee while in Berne, attending the school under a fake name. Former classmates have said he liked skiing and basketball, and idolized hoops star Michael Jordan." (From Corey's 2010 report.)
-- He is "said to have a fondness for James Bond and Hollywood tough guy Jean-Claude Van Damme. He is rumored to be married but there has never been any official word. ... [North Korean officials say] he graduated from Kim Il Sung Military University and in the fall of 2010, he was made a four-star general. ... He also received two key political posts — membership on the Central Committee of the party, and a vice chairmanship of the party's Central Military Committee, which had been overseen by his father. The anointed heir was given the titles of 'Young General' and 'Great Comrade.' " (Canada's CTV News.)
-- "He was always said to be his father's favorite, particularly after his older half brother, Kim Jong Nam, became something of an embarrassment by famously turning up in Japan in 2001 on a phony passport and asking to visit Tokyo Disneyland." (Time magazine.)
-- Last year's two attacks from the North on targets in South Korea, "sinking a warship and shelling an island," have been "widely regarded as linked to Kim Jong Un's rise: the 'young general' showing his mettle." (BBC News)
-- Kim Jong Un was quickly named "first in the membership list of the ... 232-member funeral commission" that will oversee his father's burial later this month. "That could also be seen as a possible sign that the communist nation is under control." (South Korea's Yonhap News.)
We'll keep our eye out for more about him.
Update at 4:11 p.m. ET. The View From A Former Intelligence Officer:
NPR's Robert Siegel spoke to the author of the Inspector O detective series, a former Western intelligence officer who goes by the pen name James Church. His series of books are based in North Korea.
Church told Robert that we "know very little about Jong Un. "We only began to know of his existence a few years ago," after his brother was push aside 10 years ago.
Church says one detail he thinks holds promise is Jong Un's studies in Switzerland.
"I think it's a clue to something and I don't think people focused on it enough," he said.
But Church said it may not be what kind of impact the studies had Jong Un's worldview that interest him, but why his father wanted to send him to a Western school. It might imply something about where Kim Jong Il saw the country going in his absence, said Church.
Much more of Robert's talk with Church is on tonight's All Things Considered. Tune into your local NPR member station to listen.
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