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In the mid-1990s, like his older male siblings (including a half brother), Kim Jong Un moved to Switzerland. He stayed with a family assigned to the North Korean embassy in Bern and for the first two years of his life there studied German and English. In 1998, under the pseudonym Pak Un and the pretext of being the son of a diplomat, he enrolled in seventh grade at Schule Liebefeld-Steinhlzli, a public school in the suburb of Liebefeld--a sedate, leafy town of bland apartment blocks and colorful villas. One of the early mysteries surrounding Kim Jong Un is why he attended Liebefeld-Steinhlzli when his brothers had gone to the posh International School of Berne. A former East Asia intelligence officer who has long studied the Kims speculates that Kim Jong Il did not think his youngest son would be his heir. Thus the older boys went to the fancier establishment.
Despite the deception surrounding his true identity--Kim Jong Un once confided to a schoolmate who he really was, only to have the other laugh it off as a joke--the boy lived what his fellow students say was a normal life. He stayed in a nondescript apartment block about a 10-minute walk from school, and his love affair with basketball intensified. At a time when Michael Jordan was dominating the NBA, Kim became a big fan of the Chicago Bulls, says onetime classmate Joao Micaelo, now a chef in Vienna: "I think 80% of our time we were playing basketball." Kim sometimes wore the jersey of Dennis Rodman, the flamboyant Bulls power forward known as much for his body piercing and tattoos as his rebounding. When they weren't on the basketball court, Kim and his schoolmates played combat video games, watched Jackie Chan movies and occasionally did homework.
In 2000, just after he had started ninth grade, Kim left school "abruptly," according to a local education administrator, Ueli Studer, and headed back home--something that "wasn't unusual" for the children of embassy officials, Studer told Reuters in December. When Kim returned to Pyongyang, Fujimoto was still there; the Japanese chef would remain an unofficial guardian until the boy was 18, when Fujimoto returned to his homeland for good.
Kim's interest in athletics was not limited to basketball: he had learned to Rollerblade and ride a Jet Ski. He wasn't "great at studying," Fujimoto says, "but he liked sports." He had also acquired some other habits shared by privileged teenagers the world over. Just before he left North Korea, Fujimoto attended a party that Kim threw for his friends. Kim spent much of the evening drinking from a high-priced bottle of vodka. Knowing Fujimoto was about to return to Japan, as he often did to buy food unavailable in North Korea, Kim asked him, "You're coming back, right?" He then riffled through a stack of old photographs and gave the chef a black-and-white picture of himself when he was 11 years old. Before the news of his ascension, it was the only picture of Kim the world had ever seen.
A Late Bloomer