There are some basic things about Kim Jong-un, North Korea's newly named leader, that most profiles of him pretty much agree on, and then there are a whole bunch of really weird details you have to take with a grain of salt, but that are way more fun. What we know is that he's probably in his late 20s: an NPR profile from 2010 reports that "his birthday is variously given as Jan. 8, 1982 or 1983, which would make him 27 or 28 [now 28 or 29]" and Korea's JoongAng Daily notes that "intelligence sources say he was born on Jan. 8, 1984." He's also been to school in Europe -- apparently in Berne, Switzerland -- where he learned English and maybe German while posing as the son of a North Korean embassy employee. He's the son of Kim Jong-il's third wife (or maybe consort), a dancer named Ko Yong-hi who died of breast cancer in 2004. But the various and sundry profiles floating around also include a wide array of fascinating details that, taken together, give us a look at the more colorful side of the man now in charge of one of the world's most unstable nuclear powers.
His official biography is governed by numerology: While Kim Jong-un's exact birthdate is up for debate, the government puts it in 1982, Korea JoongAng Daily reports, "because it echoes the official birth years of his father and grandfather, North Korean founder Kim Il Sung." That kind of number-fiddling is apparently common among North Korea's ruling set. The same article reports that "Officially, Kim Il Sung was born in 1912. Kim Jong-il was actually born in the former Soviet Union in 1941, but officially he was born in 1942 on Mount Paektu, the mystical place of origin for the Korean race." Similarly, Kim Jong-un's political career got started in a numerically significant way. The JoongAng Daily notes, "A diplomatic source also disclosed that Jong-un was elected a lawmaker for electoral district 216 at an election for the Supreme People’s Assembly in March last year. The district’s number matches Kim Jong-il’s official birthday, which is Feb. 16." Kim Jong-un was given the rank of four-star general in the Korea People's Army in September, 2010, The New York Times reported. The very next day he was also made a member of the Central Committee of the ruling Workers’ Party, both moves seen as grooming him for succession.
He's obsessed with basketball, and used to sketch Michael Jordan: The Washington Post reported in 2009 that Kim Jong-un's school friends recalled he "spent hours doing meticulous pencil drawings of Chicago Bulls superstar Michael Jordan." He also apparently has a picture of himself with the Los Angeles Lakers' Kobe Bryant and the Chicago Bulls' Toni Kukoc, according to the English version of the Korean Chosunilbo. That same report also quoted a school friend of Kim Jong-il who said he had a massive collection of Nike sneakers worth about $200 a pair. His friends remembered him as "explosive" on the court and highly competitive, though he was shy with girls
He once told a Western schoolmate who he really was: It's been fairly widely reported that Kim Jong-Un went to the English-language International School in Berne, Switzerland, under the assumed identity of Pak Chol, Until 1998. Reuters reports he went to another, German-speaking Swiss school from 1998 to 2000. NPR reports his false identity in school was as the son of a North Korean embassy employee, and Wikipedia says he identified himself as the son of a driver (though there's no source material to back that up). It must have been frustrating to go through school with that kind of secret because a CNN profile largely based on quotes from a school mate named Joao Micaelo reports that "Micaelo said he shared a desk with the North Korean. One day, Micaelo said, the young man, who went by the name Pak Un told his friend, 'I am the son of the leader of North Korea.' "
He's had work done, and is a fashion icon: The signature buzz cut has made Kim Jong-un a style icon in North Korea, where "Young men in Pyongyang are reportedly queuing at barbershops to copy his short, square, shaved-above-the-ears look, dubbed the 'youth' or 'ambition' haircut," The Telegraph reports. Time also reported that "South Korean media widely speculated that KJU underwent a number of cosmetic procedures last year in order to look more like his grandfather and founder of North Korea, Kim Il Sung."
In a way, he owes his new position to Eric Clapton: The Telegraph points out that Kim Jong-un's older brother Kim Jong-chol was once the favorite to succeed Kim Jong-il. But Kenji Fujimoto, who worked as Kim Jong-il's personal sushi chef and wrote an unauthorized biography of him, told the paper that Kim Jong-chol "was cruelly dismissed by his father after one lengthy drinking session with Mr Fujimoto, as too "girlish" to lead." Kim Jong-il got that impression, reports Korea JoongAng Daily, "after Japanese media reported that he took a trip to Europe with a female companion and attended an Eric Clapton concert in Germany." Kim Jong-un is also reportedly a fan of the former Cream frontman, but fortunately for his career, hasn't been caught venturing abroad to see him.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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