North Korea’s ‘Young General’ grows up

Apr 17, 2012, 6:00 PM

Associated Press

PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) – His grandfather made his name in the 1930s as a teenage guerrilla, battling the Japanese soldiers who then occupied Korea. His father spent decades solidifying the family’s hold over the country, building up the military, extending the intelligence apparatus and driving its nuclear ambitions.

And Kim Jong Un himself? He apparently cut his teeth on the basketball courts of a Swiss middle school, a fiercely competitive player who posed as the son of a North Korean Embassy employee. Until, one day in 2000, he disappeared.

He wasn’t seen again publicly until 10 years later, when he stood near his ailing father, Kim Jong Il, at a Pyongyang military parade. Cheering crowds greeted the baby-faced “Young General” as North Korea’s ruler-in-waiting.

Now, with an outwardly seamless transition to the third generation of Kim family rulers, he appears to have been well-served by his competitive instincts.

In North Korea, everyone now knows who is in charge. Even if he probably isn’t yet 30.

Deafening cheers greeted Kim Jong Un when he stepped onto a viewing platform Sunday and waved to tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians gathered in Kim Il Sung Square, the huge plaza named for his grandfather and the heart of the North Korean capital.

“We have been transformed from a small and weak country ruthlessly trampled upon by competing powers into a confident political and military power,” Kim Jong Un said, the first time his voice had been heard here in public. “Our people are showing off their dignity as independent people who no one can dare provoke.”

After Kim Jong Il’s death, many observers had predicted the son would be little more than a puppet guided by his father’s elderly inner circle.

But if it remains unclear exactly how much power Kim Jong Un wields, and how much he must share with the small coterie of relatives and advisers installed by his father, nearly all analysts say he has immense power.

In a week of events planned for the April 15 centenary of his grandfather’s birth, a day celebrated as one of the greatest in the country’s history, Kim assumed a series of top positions in the military, the ruling Workers’ Party and the government.

“It’s nonsensical to say somebody is pulling the strings behind Kim Jong Un,” said Cheong Seong-chang, a North Korea analyst at the private Sejong Institute near Seoul, South Korea.

While the government-controlled media carefully nurture comparisons to his grandfather, portraying him as a smiling everyman who meets everybody from the political elite to low-ranking soldiers, he also shares his father’s knack for confounding the U.S. and its allies.

Kim Jong Il was a master at using missile tests and nuclear research _ and then promises to scale them back _ to manipulate the West into providing humanitarian aid to the North.

The younger Kim, who is believed to be about 29 years old, is apparently doing the same thing, though analysts add that his long-term policies have not yet become clear. He faced a serious setback on Friday, when a rocket that North Korea said was carrying a satellite blew up shortly after liftoff, scattering pieces over the Yellow Sea.

Washington says the launch was a cover for testing ballistic missile technology, though North Korea says it simply wanted to put an observation satellite into space.

On Tuesday, North Korea’s Foreign Ministry rejected U.N. Security Council condemnation of the launch and accused the U.S. of leading a campaign to deny the country’s right to develop a civilian space program.

Kim’s speech two days after the launch may have overstated North Korea’s position in the world _ it remains a deeply impoverished nation, despite its nuclear and rocket research programs _ but it was also widely seen as a forceful statement about his control over North Korea. During his years in power, Kim Jong Il only spoke once publicly. And then very briefly.

Most of the basic facts about Kim Jong Un’s life, though, remain clouded.

North Koreans are told he graduated from Kim Il Sung Military University and speaks several foreign languages, including English. But his age, marital status and even the name of his late mother _ said to be one of Kim Jong Il’s wives, Ko Yong Hui _ have never been made public.

The little personal information to emerge about Kim comes mostly from former schoolmates in Switzerland, who in interviews with European news outlets remember him as a ferociously competitive basketball fanatic obsessed with Michael Jordan. For the most part, he kept his personal history a secret.

“One day, he did actually say to me, ‘My father is the leader of North Korea,’ but I just thought he was making it up,” Joao Micaelo, a former friend, told Britain’s Sunday Telegraph.

Most analysts believe Kim Jong Un was at least partially educated in Switzerland, though officials at the German-language school, located in a quiet Bern suburb, say they do not know for sure if the young man who went by the name Pak Un was actually Kim Jong Un. They only say Pak Un was a student from 1998 to 2000, when he was in grades six to nine.

In this heavily militarized, one-party state, questions about Kim family history are almost never raised in public. Questions about Kim Jong Un, particularly with outsiders, are invariably met with little more than fusillades of praise.

At a recent mass gathering in a Pyongyang stadium, thousands of North Koreans chanted his name over and over again, along with a promise to “defend you with our lives!”

Surrounding Kim Jong Un is a group of aging North Korean dignitaries, including a handful of relatives and a tiny cluster of top military and political officials.

The closest adviser, many outsiders believe, is Kim Jong Il’s brother-in-law, Jang Song Thaek. He is married to Kim Jong Il’s younger sister, Kim Kyong Hui.

Jang, 66, was given a series of high-ranking titles a few years ago so he would have “the leadership credentials to be the mentor” of Kim Jong Un, said Ralph Cossa, president of Pacific Forum CSIS, a Hawaii-based think tank.

Cossa said China, which has become North Korea’s all-important patron since the fall of the Soviet Union, has indicated it is pleased by the close ties between the two men.

“The Chinese see the next generation _ the combination of (Kim Jong Un) and Jang Song Thaek _ as the best hope of North Korea moving in the way of Chinese-style reform,” said Cossa, who said he has spoken to a number of Chinese officials who have met with the Pyongyang inner circle. “The Chinese have certainly cast their lot with them.”

North Korea’s political history, though, makes it clear that true authority rests with Kim Jong Un.

“The history and political culture of this place is that one person makes the decisions,” said Victor Cha, a top White House adviser on North Korea under President George W. Bush. Decisions of national significance, he said in a telephone interview, have always been made by the Kims.

“We have to assume that he has folks around him who are advising him, and maybe even giving him different opinions. But there’s only one person in control, and it has to be this young fellow.”


Associated Press writers Hyung-jin Kim in Seoul, South Korea, and John Heilprin in Geneva contributed to this report.

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

World News

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, who reportedly died in prison on Friday, Feb. 16, 2024, i...

Associated Press

Alexei Navalny, galvanizing opposition leader and Putin’s fiercest foe, died in prison, Russia says

Alexei Navalny, the fiercest foe of Russian President Vladimir Putin, died Friday while incarcerated, the country's prison agency said.

5 days ago

Britain's King Charles III and Queen Camilla leave The London Clinic in central London, Monday, Jan...

Associated Press

Britain’s King Charles III has cancer and is receiving treatment

Britain's King Charles III has been diagnosed with a form of cancer and has begun treatment, Buckingham Palace announced Monday.

16 days ago

A resident flees an encroaching forest fire in Vina del Mar, Chile, Saturday, Feb. 3, 2024. Officia...

Associated Press

At least 46 reported dead in Chile as forest fires move into densely populated central areas

Intense forest fires burning around a densely populated area of central Chile have caused at least 46 deaths, Chile's pesident said Saturday.

17 days ago

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, with a payload including two lunar rovers from Japan and the United Arab ...

Associated Press

Unmanned Japanese spacecraft successfully makes soft landing on moon

Japan became the fifth country in history to reach the moon when one of its unmanned spacecrafts successfully landed on the lunar surface.

1 month ago

Associated Press

Israeli Cabinet approves cease-fire with Hamas; deal includes release of 50 hostages

Israel’s Cabinet on Wednesday approved a cease-fire deal with the Hamas militant group that would bring a temporary halt to a devastating war.

3 months ago

Palestinians leave their homes following Israeli bombardment on Gaza City, Monday, Oct. 30, 2023. (...

Associated Press

Israeli airstrikes crush apartments in Gaza refugee camp, as ground troops battle Hamas militants

A flurry of Israeli airstrikes Tuesday on a refugee camp near Gaza City leveled apartment buildings, leaving craters where they once stood.

4 months ago

Sponsored Articles


Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Day & Night is looking for the oldest AC in the Valley

Does your air conditioner make weird noises or a burning smell when it starts? If so, you may be due for an AC unit replacement.


Collins Comfort Masters

Avoid a potential emergency and get your home’s heating and furnace safety checked

With the weather getting colder throughout the Valley, the best time to make sure your heating is all up to date is now. 



The 2023 Diamondbacks are a good example to count on the underdog

The Arizona Diamondbacks made the World Series as a surprise. That they made the playoffs at all, got past the Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Wild Card round, swept the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLDS and won two road games in Philadelphia to close out a full seven-game NLCS went against every expectation. Now, […]

North Korea’s ‘Young General’ grows up