Kim Jong Un's Teenage Years Revealed: Ambitious, Abandoned by Family and Prone to Lashing Out, New Book Says

A new book detailing the adolescent years of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has described the dictator-to-be as a private but driven teenager, prone to fits of anger and struggling with language lessons.

The book—The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, written by The Washington Post's Beijing bureau chief Anna Fifield—was released this week and offers a fresh look into the secretive leader's formative years studying abroad in Switzerland.

An extract published by Politico explains that Kim began his studies in Switzerland in 1996 at the age of 12, in the capital city of Bern—only the fifth most populous in the country. The small city offered a quiet and discreet spot to grow up in for Kim and his brother Kim Jong Chol.

They were looked after by their aunt, Ko Yong Suk, her husband, Ri Gang, and their three children. Both were given fake names—Kim going by Pak Un—and said to be the sons of North Korean diplomats.

But when Kim—or Pak—arrived in Bern, he was far from a model student. Joao Micaelo, the son of Portuguese diplomats, told Fifield his new classmate struggled to learn High German—in which lessons were conducted—which differs significantly from the local Swiss German dialect. Micaelo recalled Kim being embarrassed when called upon to answer questions in class because he could not communicate properly.

Though this made Kim quiet, Micaelo said his new friend was decisive and able to get his point across. Kim would also help Micaelo with his math work, Fifield wrote.

In another extract from her book released earlier this week, Fifield said Kim was a lonely child before he was sent to Switzerland. He and his brother had few other children to play with, though this was somewhat alleviated by the friendship they struck up with their father's sushi chef, Kenji Fujimoto.

His difficulty with the German language caused tensions between Kim and his classmates in Switzerland. Fifield cited details from unpublished interviews conducted by a Swiss journalist, in which one girl said the future leader deeply resented not being able to understand when fellow students spoke to each other in Swiss German.

"He kicked us in the shins and even spat at us," she said, though Micaelo described Kim as "ambitious but not aggressive."

Kim's icy persona thawed as he grew older and his German improved, classmates said. The girl who was kicked and spat on, for example, said he became more sociable over time.

Kim devoted much of his energy to basketball, which Fifield suggests became something of an obsession. He would travel around Europe to watch and meet famous players, and at home would regularly play while wearing a Chicago Bulls jersey.

On the court, his competitive nature shone through, Fifield explained. He played aggressively, indulged in trash talk and rarely laughed during games, she said. When losing, he would curse and even bang his own head on the wall in frustration.

Though the brothers lived in a seemingly normal family in Bern, their situation was anything but. This became especially apparent when their mother, Ko Yong Hui, developed breast cancer in 1998. She began specialist treatment in France, but doctors were not positive about her chances for survival.

For Ko Yong Hui's sister, the illness posed a threat to the privileged position she and her family enjoyed looking after Kim and his brother. If their mother died, the familial bond between the boys and their aunt and uncle —and thus the couple's position within the regime—would be weakened.

As such, they decided to take their chances and flee while the getting was good. One Sunday night in May that year, the couple packed their three children into the car and drove to the U.S. embassy, where they claimed asylum. They eventually moved to the U.S. and set up a dry-cleaning store. Kim's mother survived until 2004, when she died in Paris.

When Kim returned to Bern for the 1998-99 school year, he moved to a different school to avoid any difficult questions about why his parents had suddenly changed, Fifield wrote. He would stay in Switzerland until 2001, when his father and former North Korean leader Kim Jong Il would order him back to Pyongyang.

He returned to North Korea to become his father's heir apparent, after both his older brother and his older half-brother fell out of favor with the dictator. Though western analysts hoped his time in Switzerland would make Kim more open to reform as leader, he has been a thorn in the side for the U.S. and its allies.

Negotiations on denuclearization and sanctions relief are currently stalled after the collapse of a summit between Kim and President Donald Trump in Hanoi in February. The North Korean leader is keen to drive a hard bargain, and the past year of talks has dampened hopes of a quick and resounding foreign policy win for the president.

Kim Jong un, North Korea, childhood, Switzerland
North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un arrives to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin on April 25, 2019 in Vladivostok, Russia. Getty/Mikhail Svetlov