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The international school, Michael Jordan lovin’ days of Kim Jong-un, North Korea’s ‘Supreme Leader’

kim jong-un education
This file photo taken on April 15, 2017 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un waving from a balcony of the Grand People's Study House following a military parade marking the 105th anniversary of the birth of late North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung in Pyongyang. Source: Ed Jones/AFP

Our education makes us who we are — and that statement holds true even if you’re Kim Jong-un, the intriguing/terrifying leader of hermit kingdom North Korea.

Speculation is rife over whether the supreme leader of the impoverished and isolated nation of 25 million is dead, brain dead, gravely ill, or alive and well after reportedly undergoing a heart-valve surgery.

Both Chinese and South Korea intelligence officials have rebutted the death claims, but the North’s leader has neither been seen in public for two weeks or responded to claims about his health. He even missed the annual visit to the Kumsusan Palace on April 15 to mark the birthday of his grandfather, the founder of the dynastic regime, for the first time ever.

Up to this point, Kim has led North Korea for over nine years since he took over in December 2011. He has been called many things — “Rocket Man,” “short and fat,” “dotard”. But for all the ridicule of his weight, youth and looks, he has also tested nearly three times more missiles than his father and grandfather combined.

Analysts have pointed out that Kim is more than just a bizarre trapezoid of a haircut, his executions by way of piranhas or an omnipotent figure with expanding nuclear power capabilities.

And one source that analysts, academics and even intelligence officials often go to is his early days as an international student in Switzerland.


Here, we compile the reports about the international education that make the North Korean leader the world is in tenterhooks to figure out whether dead or alive:

1. He was enrolled in the International School of Berne

In August 1996, Kim set off for Switzerland to join his older brother Kim Jong Chul, starting off his four formative teenage years abroad.

They went to the private, English-language International School of Berne which, according to the school’s website, charges tuition between CHF31,600 – 34,900 (around US$32,373 – 35,754) for a secondary school education today. It’s a school favoured by diplomats and other expats in the capital, and its student population contains about 40 nationalities.

2. He had a Portuguese friend

Jong-un initially lived with his maternal aunt, Ko Yong Suk, her husband Ri Gang, and their three children. But two years later, and fearing their ties with the then North Korean regime were weakening as Jong-un’s mother was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer, they fled to the US.

So when Jong-un returned to Switzerland two years later, with a new set of “parents,” he enrolled in the German-speaking public school in his neighborhood, Schule Liebefeld Steinhölzli.

As a 14-year-old, the princeling met João Micaelo, the son of Portuguese immigrants, whom he sat next to and helped with maths in return for help with his German, according to PoliticoThey bonded and would progress to sixth grade together into the academically-weaker stream. However, João only found the true identity of his close childhood friend years later.

Micaelo told The Daily Beast“We had a lot of fun together. He was a good guy. Lots of kids liked him. I don’t know anything about his life today. All I know is the guy I knew in school.”

3. He learned German

At the public school, Kim had to take a kind of pathway programme with other pupils who did not speak German for several months. Similar to preparatory courses that students who are not native English speakers joined before enrolling in university-level courses, these classes helped him improve his German language through slower-paced lessons.

In addition to German, he also learned other subjects like science, music, art, religion, culture and so forth.

4. He studied a Western curriculum

One of the reasons why analysts harboured hopes that Kim could be a reformer to the communist Asian state was the curriculum he studied while in Switzerland.


Kim was required to learn about Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Jr and former acquaintances describe an adolescence spent in brand-name tracksuits and an obsession with basketball, specifically Michael Jordan.

Another classmate old German newspaper Welt am Sonntag, “He had a sense of humor and got on well with everyone, even those pupils who came from countries who were enemies of North Korea.”

“Politics was a taboo subject at school… we would argue about football, not politics.”

5. He loved basketball

Kim’s mother never forced him to study but he was encouraged to play basketball by his mother and the obsession began.


He would play every evening at his school. Like the many other gizmos he owned that other kids could only dreamed of then, his Spalding ball was cutting-edge too, with an official NBA mark. He even played with an authentic Chicago Bulls top with his idol’s number 23, Bulls shorts and Air Jordans.

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