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WORLD FOCUS: Talking about Kim Jong Un’s education in Switzerland

August 25, 2017
By FRANK SHATZ , Lake Placid News

Is the United States and North Korea on the brink of a nuclear war?

According to foreign policy experts, it depends mostly on two individuals: Donald Trump, the president of the U.S., and Kim Jong Un, the dictator of North Korea. And their decisions may be influenced by their personalities, temperament and character.

People who had known Trump since his youth say he didn't change a bit. All the characteristics that made him a multi-billionaire and ultimately the U.S. president are still present and are governing his actions. He is not, as Churchill characterized the Soviet Union, "a riddle wrapped into a mystery inside an enigma." He is quite predictable, based on his track record. Thus, actions don't necessarily correspond with his words.

What about Kim Jong Un? Until 2011, when Kim Jong Il, the North Korean dictator, died of a heart attack, hardly anybody outside the country knew about his son, Kim Jong Un. He took over the reins, inheriting the world's fourth-largest military, with a nuclear arsenal.

Several people in the West, however, have memories of the young Kim Jong Un. They were his schoolmates at an English-language international school near Bern, Switzerland.

When Kim Jong Un was 9 years old, his father enrolled him at the private Swiss school, but under an assumed name as the son of a North Korean diplomat. The young Kim had his own apartment, cook, chauffer and bodyguard. He had also the latest high-tech toys. He remained at the school until he was 15 years old. Upon his return to North Korea, Kim Jong Un attended Kim Il Sung Military University.

One of his classmates, Nikola Kovacevic, remembers him as a fiercely competitive basketball player. "Very explosive, he was the play maker," Kovacevis told The Mirror, a British newspaper. "He made things happen. Although he was overweight and only 5 feet 6 inches tall, he was a decent basketball player."

Another former classmate, Marco Imhof, said, "Winning was very important to him. He hated to lose."

Kim Jong Un is remembered as a big fan of the American basketball star Michael Jordan. He had posters of Jordan displayed all over the walls of his apartment.

Other former classmates remember Kim Jong Un as struggling with learning English and German but excelling at mathematics. Those who have watched Kim Jong Un's rise to power have concluded that his prolonged exposure to the West and its values had no lasting impact on his behavior. Since he took over the reins in North Korea, he has ordered the execution of 140 of high-ranking military and government officials, including members of his own family. The smallest sign of disloyalty is enough to bring on doom. His uncle and mentor, Jang Song Taek, who was executed, was accused also with "clapping half-heartedly" when Kim Jong Un delivered a speech.

In spite of all the negative signs emitting from North Korea, experts who had negotiated with the regime, among them Mitchell Reiss, now serving as president and CEO of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, maintain that the North Koreans are not crazy or irrational.

Reiss should know. As the chief negotiator for the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, an agency responsible for a $6 billion project that was set up to entice North Korea to freeze and ultimately eliminate its nuclear weapons program, he visited North Korea repeatedly, spending more time negotiating and interacting with high-level officials than any other American.

Reiss, in a March 2017 interview with the News said, "As with any negotiation, you need to demonstrate patience, resolve and empathy. With North Korea, I don't believe it is currently possible to reach any agreement on nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, for many reasons, a large one being the impossibility of verifying compliance."

While evaluating Kim Jong Un's possible behavior during the current stand-off between the U.S. and North Korea, it may be worthwhile to remember that he excelled in math. Thus, he can figure out that North Korea's nuclear stockpile of maybe 80 bombs is no match to the 1,500 nuclear weapons in the U.S.

Frank Shatz's column was reprinted with permission from the Virginia Gazette. Shatz is a Lake Placid seasonal resident. He is the author of "Reports from a Distant Place," the compilation of his selected columns.



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