‘He experienced the Western culture in its best form’ : An Interview with Kim Jong-un’s Classmate in Bern

Elisalex Hexel, “Kim Jong-un played football, had humor, and loved comics,” Die Welt am Sonntag, June 7, 2009. Translated from the German original by Adam Cathcart.

From an interview with Kim Jong-un’s classmate, who wishes to remain anonymous.

I cannot really remember anymore precisely when he came to the International School of Berne (ISB).  It must have been 1993 or 1994.  He introduced himself as Chol Pak and was at that time about eleven years old. His English was poor at first: he had a strong accent, so he got help with it. Later he mastered it quite well [beherrschte er es ganz gut], and he learned German also — at least the basics. I think, he understands even Swiss German, [a language] which, over the years, brought all of us together. Yes, it happens automatically when you live there.

Unlike his father Kim Jong-il — which I now know — he was a pretty big guy, lanky, round face, with a little acne, like most of us back then. I also remember that he dressed very simply; even in later years, it was always black jeans, black socks, maximum color a gray T-shirt. One time he appeared in a grey T-shirt with blue stripes, and a classmate said jokingly to him: “So eccentric today [So ausgefallen heute]?” And so he had to laugh.

He had humor, and got along well even with students that came from countries which were enemies of North Korea – or are today. Which countries those were, we already knew, but it was never an issue. Politics was taboo in the school, and nobody dared to bring up such things. We didn’t even speak about back home even once, since none of us were home.  Most of us had diplomats as parents, others business people; a few came from rich Swiss families. There were people from America, Europe, Asia, and many Jews and many Arabs, but in three years [of school we had] only one dispute about the Middle East conflict. We argued about football, not about politics.

Pak Chol was also on the football team, together with several Americans. One Israeli taught him basketball.  He also spent much time with a South Korean; I think this was because the South Korean could draw comics extremely well. Pak Chol liked comics; his favorite were Japanese manga.

As for girls, none of us had this much on the mind [nicht so viel am Hut], but there were parties. Strictly speaking, Chol was not very involved in these. I remember though, that he was a good student, especially in math. Now, this sounds perhaps as if he was a nerd, but that’s not accurate: he simply had it together [er war in Ordnung]. I never went to his house, even though we understood one another well [wir uns gut verstanden], but this in itself was nothing special. There were times when the Americans or the Israelis were also not easy to visit – because of the security provisions of the embassies.

The ISB is, as is known already, a special school, very expensive and very small: in total, we had maybe two or three hundred students, a maximum of 15 per class. The teachers were great, as was the overall environment [die Lage]. The school is situated outside of Bern, amid greenery, and with mountains all around, so in winter we went skiing every weekend.  There were always some projects going on: Once, we made compost and sold it Bern to raise money which we donated for a library in Togo. Pak Chol also joined in this activity.

When he [Pak Chol] arrived at the school, another North Korean came with him; he called himself Chung Kwang.  Chol and he were always brought to the school together [wurden immer gemeinsam in die Schule gebracht], they sat side by side and were always together otherwise. We thought nothing of it, as, sure, they were the only North Koreans. National identities seemed to play a very important role in this school. Yes, we often had to end new friendships, because through the transfer of their parents, some people left and new people came, and this process always felt faster with friends who came from your own country. Probably for this reason, no one particularly surprised when Pak Chol and Kwang Chung, sometime in 1998 it was, simply did not appear again.

Both North Koreans played a major role in sports. Pak Chol was quite talented. He was strong and ran fast, but he could not keep up with Kwang. Kwang had a body like Bruce Lee; he was an incredible athlete and the best striker [der beste Stürmer] on the football team. Because he played so well, Kwang was more popular than Chol, but that seemed not to have phased Chol. The two amused themselves a lot with entertaining action films, by Schwarzenegger, for example – and also martial arts. Kwang always tried to teach kung-fu to Chol, or karate; he was really good at it.

Now, if I think it over, considering the skills that Kwang showed to everyone, I can’t imagine that he was merely athletic. One time, he kicked a pencil from a fellow student’s mouth. That is surely not something a normal kid can do; he must have been trained as an athletic fighter [Kampfsportler]. Perhaps he was a soldier who just looked very young.

From the beginning, there were rumors that Chol was the son of North Korea’s dictator, and Kwang his bodyguard, but no one really seriously considered that it might be true.  And no one ever commented that one of the North Koreans seemed to order the other one around. And besides all that, we were in a school where nobody really noticed such things because everyone was so different [so verschieden] anyway.

Wenn ich heute in der Zeitung lese, dass mein Mitschüler Chol Pak der Nachfolger des nordkoreanischen Diktators werden soll, muss ich lachen.WhenWh These days, when I read in the newspaper that my fellow student Pak Chol is going to become North Korea’s dictator, I have to laugh.  It is simply absurd! Crazy [Verruckt]! I can not imagine that a dictator would come from our school. The school was actually permeated with concepts of tolerance and peace and equality [eigentlich dauernd um Toleranz und Frieden und Gleichberechtigung], holding hands and stuff. Naturally, I don’t mean it in a bad way and I don’t denigrate the experience at all: I loved my time at ISB, and I think everyone else did, too.  How much it influenced Pak Chol, I can’t say, of course, because it all happened so long ago. It’s probable that the North Korean in him is stronger than the International School-student, but sometimes I think about this way: At the end of the day, he experienced the Western culture in its best form. Mostly, I wonder only if he remembers me, and whether he will call me when he reads this.

Final Note: For more original reportage based on interviews with Kim’s schoolmates, see the Swiss-French magazine, L’Hebdo.



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