February 20, 2009 12:10
One day in 1998, 10 North Korean basketball players, including 235-cm-tall Ri Myong-hoon, received a call from the country's Workers Party. They were driven to the house of Kim Jong-il, divided into two teams and told to play a game of basketball as Kim's two sons Jong-chol and Jong-un watched. One cheered for each team. When the game ended, Jong-chol left after thanking the athletes. But Jong-un brought the players of his team together for a session to reflect on their performance and pointed out which ones made mistakes and which ones did well. Jong-un is said to be fiercely competitive and cannot stand to lose.
Not much is known about Jong-un. Nobody even knew what he looked like until a photo taken when he was 11 was published early this year. Jung-un was born on Jan. 8, 1983 and his mother is Kim's third wife Ko Yong-hui. He attended an international school in Bern, Switzerland for a short while around 1997. And even there, he stayed out of public view, only going to school and staying at home. On rare trips outside his house, he was accompanied by Ri Chol, the North Korean ambassador to Switzerland and caretaker of Kim's slush fund.
Until his mother's death in 2004, Jong-un liked to wear military fatigues and carry a pistol, heading to military bases ahead of his father's visits to give soldiers pep talks on the "Songun" or Military First ideology. Unlike Jong-chol, who is into computers and music, Jong-un is a sports fan. That is why Kim Jong-il is said to have described Jong-chol as being "girlish" and Jong-un as having leadership qualities. One North Korean defector who used to be a member of the Pyongyang athletic squad describes Jong-un as being more aggressive than his brother. Kim's erstwhile chef Kenji Fujimoto said Jong-un resembles his father both in his facial features and his physique.
For five years since 2002, Jong-un studied military science at the Kim Il Sung Military University, which trains military leaders. He is said to have received private tutoring as well by inviting academics to teach him at home. Due to the stress from the death of his mother, Jong-un is also rumored to have grown fat, weighing 90 kg at only 175 cm tall. He is also rumored to have developed diabetes and high blood pressure, traits he inherited from his father. There were rumors that he suffered a motorcycle accident last year.
Citing a North Korean government official, the Japanese daily Mainichi Shimbun on Tuesday reported that Jong-un had been chosen as Kim Jong-il's successor. The report also said Jong-un, who did not have any official titles so far, is now a senior military officer. Kim spent 20 years ruling North Korea jointly with his father, in order to consolidate his leadership. But there is not much time left for any of his sons to undergo that same grooming. When an extraordinary third hereditary transfer of power does take place, uncertainties on the Korean Peninsula are likely to increase.
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