When Kim Jong-un became the new Supreme Leader of North Korea following the death of his father in December 2011, the pariah state’s nuclear program was already well underway. Per CNN, the country reportedly tested its first nuclear weapon in 2006, which led to an outraged UN Security Council imposing some heavy sanctions. Undeterred, the regime continued to pour funds into its nuclear research and has supposedly made plenty of progress since Kim took the reins — in 2017, state media claimed that North Korea had intercontinental ballistic missiles in its arsenal.
The fact that Kim continued his dad’s work isn’t surprising, but nobody expected to ever see him discussing that work with the sitting President of the United States. Changing his approach and seemingly embracing diplomacy, Kim came face to face with Donald Trump at a historic summit in Singapore in 2018, marking the first time sitting leaders from the two nations had met … though their landmark talks seemingly stalled by the following year.
Meanwhile, Kim later vanished from public view as the coronavirus pandemic gripped the world in 2020, sparking rumors about his health. As of this writing, reporters are still having a hard time separating fact from fiction, but when it comes to Kim Jong-un, that’s always been the case.
Kim Jong-un was reportedly educated in Switzerland
Little is known about Kim Jong-un’s early childhood (even his date of birth is a mystery), but it’s been confirmed that he spent four years in Europe — Switzerland, to be exact — beginning in 1996. Using the name Pak Un and posing as the child of North Korean diplomats, Kim attended an international school in Bern, the capital city of the neutral country, per Politico. He joined his older brother, who was already studying there, and his maternal aunt and uncle, who were pretending to be their parents. The arrangement worked well up until Kim’s mother was diagnosed with cancer.
With their connection to the regime under threat, Kim’s aunt and uncle fled to the U.S. Embassy and claimed asylum. Speaking to journalist Anna Fifield from her home in America years later, Ko Yong-suk revealed what life was like looking after the Kim kids: “We lived in a normal home and acted like a normal family. I acted like their mother. Their friends would come over, and I would make them snacks. It was a very normal childhood with birthday parties and gifts and Swiss kids coming over to play.”
Not all the Swiss kids took a shining to Kim, however. In fact, he was reportedly quite the outsider, with one former classmate claiming that he would lash out when his peers conversed in Swiss German, which he struggled to understand: “He kicked us in the shins and even spat at us.”
Kim Jong-un has a bizarre bromance with Dennis Rodman
According to Anna Fifield’s book, The Great Successor, Kim Jong-un has always loved basketball and would often get scolded for playing too much during his school days in Switzerland — his mother was reportedly horrified when she discovered her son was sleeping with his official NBA ball every night. Whenever Kim played, he would wear the same Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls jersey and a pair of Air Jordans. His love for Jordan was apparently passed down by his father, who once asked the U.S. to send the NBA star to North Korea, ABC News reports.
Jordan never made it to North Korea, but years later Kim managed to get another Bulls legend to accept an invitation to Pyongyang. Dennis Rodman first visited the country for a basketball exhibition back in 2013, and he struck up an unlikely friendship with the dictator. “The Marshal Kim and I had a relaxing time by the sea with his family,” Rodman told The Guardian at the time. “He’s a good dad and has a beautiful family.” The Hall of Famer even sang “Happy Birthday” to Kim when he returned the following year in a bizarre moment that sums up this odd bromance.
Rodman defended his “friend for life” when he spoke to Business Insider in 2019, claiming he still receives regular invites to North Korea but has been banned from traveling to the country by the president: “I can’t go because Donald won’t let me go.”
Kim Jong-un reportedly forces university students to copy his hairstyle
One thing that Kim Jong-un and his American counterpart have in common is that their haircuts generate a lot of conversation. Donald Trump reportedly uses dye and stiffening spray to achieve his unique look, though luckily for the youth of the United States, he doesn’t insist on people copying it. In 2014, a report emerged suggesting that the Supreme Leader of North Korea had introduced a new rule that made it mandatory for male university students to sport his hairstyle. According to one source, who spoke to Radio Free Asia on the condition of anonymity, not everybody was happy about having to adopt Kim’s look. “Our leader’s haircut is very particular, if you will,” the insider said (via BBC News). “It doesn’t always go with everyone since everyone has different face and head shapes.”
The story got even bigger when a London salon used Kim’s face on a poster with the words “bad hair day” right next to him. What the owner didn’t realize was that the North Korean embassy was just a 10-minute walk away. The day after the advert went up, he was visited by two North Korean officials who wanted to know why Kim’s face was being used. “Listen, this isn’t North Korea, this is England,” the manager reportedly told the men. “We live in a democracy, so I’m afraid you’re going to have to get out of my salon.”
Kim Jong-un is married to a former cheerleader and singer
Kim Jong-un is thought to have married his wife, Ri Sol-ju, in either 2009 or 2010. According to sources cited by The Telegraph, the nuptials reportedly took place not long after his father suffered a stroke, with the regime keen to ensure that the Kim dynasty endured. Ri, who comes from an elite North Korean family, was reportedly part of her country’s Olympic cheerleading team during her early twenties and went on to perform in concerts overseas. She was a member of the Unhasu band, whose members are “handpicked by the state based on their talent, looks and loyalty to the regime,” per The Straits Times.
Ri’s profile has received a significant boost in recent years. She’s been by her husband’s side during his overseas visits, usually looking rather fabulous (she showed up for one summit with a Christian Dior handbag draped over her shoulder). Ri was given the title of “respected First Lady” ahead of her first solo public appearance in 2018, having previously been referred to as simply “madam” or “comrade” in North Korean state media. Like Kim, her date of birth is a mystery, but we know that she has at least one child by the dictator: Kim’s BFF, Dennis Rodman, revealed that he “held their baby Ju-ae and spoke with Ms Ri as well” when he spoke to The Guardian back in 2013. The couple are thought to have three kids in total.
Did Kim Jong-un have plastic surgery to look more like his famous grandfather?
In 2013, China’s Shenzhen TV ran a story about Kim Jong-un that had its neighbor and ally up in arms. Per Business Insider, a North Korean official reportedly confirmed to the station that the Supreme Leader had undergone six separate plastic surgery procedures in an effort “to look more like his grandfather, Kim Il-sung.” Known as “the eternal president” in North Korea, Kim Il-sung founded the country and has retained a godlike status. China’s state news agency was quick to denounce the story, but it was still picked up by numerous South Korean outlets, which didn’t go down very well north of the border. In fact, North Korea was absolutely furious.
“The false report released by enemies is a hideous criminal act which the party, state, army and people can never tolerate,” North Korea’s propaganda agency KCNA stated (via Express). “Those hurting the dignity of the supreme leadership of the nation should not expect any mercy or leniency. Time will clearly show what dear price the human scum and media in the service of traitors of South Korea, slaves of capital, will have to pay.” The rumors persisted, of course, but is there any truth to them? According to North Korean defector Kim Yoo-sung, there could well be. “It is thought that top elites in North Korea can get high-quality plastic surgery,” he wrote in his book, Ask A North Korean.
Do North Koreans actually believe that Kim Jong-un never has to use the toilet?
One of wackiest things about North Korea is that the people are reportedly led to believe that the Kim family does not need to use the bathroom. Ever. “[They] were perfect beings, untarnished by any base human function,” defector and concentration camp survivor Kang Chol-Hwan wrote in his memoir (via Daily Star). “I was convinced, as we all were, that neither of them urinated or defecated. Who could imagine such things of gods?” The truth, of course, is that Kim Jong-un is just a man, so how does he perpetuate this clear and obvious lie? Well, he travels with a mobile toilet.
Sources based in North Korea’s South Pyongan province claimed to Daily NK that when Kim travels around his country by convoy, one of those cars is actually a lavatory on wheels. One insider said that it would be “unthinkable” for the Supreme Leader to have to use a public restroom. The dictator also packs a portable toilet when he travels overseas (South Korean newspaper The Chosunilbo confirmed that he brought his own loo along when he met Donald Trump in Singapore), though it’s apparently just as much about security as it is vanity.
Speaking to The Washington Post, a former member of the North Korean Guard Command, Lee Yun-keol, revealed that Kim’s droppings are considered top secret material: “The leader’s excretions contain information about his health status so they can’t be left behind.”
Kim Jong-un could drive a car at age 3?
In 2015, South Korean television network YTN came into possession of a North Korean teacher’s manual that had been distributed to schools across the totalitarian country. The text, intended as a guide to a newly introduced class called Kim Jong Un’s Revolutionary Activities, was packed with outrageous claims about the Supreme Leader’s childhood. According to UPI, the booklet stated that Kim was a skilled artist and composer of classical music. This could well be true, but we’re pretty sure he wasn’t driving by age 3.
North Korean children are apparently being taught that Kim was a child prodigy who could handle a vehicle as a toddler. It’s not the only amazing thing he could reportedly do at three years old, either: according to The Guardian, state propagandists have claimed that little Kim could shoot a light bulb from 100 meters away by that age. By eight, he was apparently able to drive a truck at 80 mph, and as a nine-year-old, he supposedly “raced the chief executive of a foreign yacht company” and beat him against the odds, the sketchy teacher’s manual read.
Believe it or not, the stories that North Koreans are told about Kim Jong-un aren’t anywhere near as outlandish was the ones told about his dad. Kim Jong-il is said to have written 1500 books during his time at university (roughly 40 a month), and he apparently had the world’s best golfing record when he died in 2011.
Kim Jong-un's regime was behind the Sony hack, the U.S. claims
When Sony greenlit a comedy about the assassination of Kim Jong-un by American journalists, it probably expected a response of some kind. What the studio clearly didn’t anticipate was a cyber attack that would cost it tens of millions of dollars. Overseas-based North Korean writer Kim Myong-chol went on the offensive when the trailer for Seth Rogen and James Franco’s The Interview was released in 2014, and the regime soon followed suit, making it clear that the movie’s release would be considered an “act of war.” A government official told North Korean news agency KCNA (via The Guardian) that there would be a “resolute and merciless” reaction if the comedy wasn’t shelved.
Sony stood its ground to begin with, but the studio would soon be rocked to its core when a group calling itself Guardians of Peace hacked its computers and leaked everything from unreleased movies to embarrassing personal emails (Angelina Jolie, for example, was called a “minimally talented spoiled brat” in one message between execs). The Interview‘s wide theatrical release was canceled. North Korea denied involvement, but praised the hackers for their actions. Of course, few people actually believed that the secretive state wasn’t involved in the hack. The U.S. openly blamed Kim’s regime, and in 2018, a man named Park Jin-hyok was officially charged. The Department of Justice described Park as a “North Korean regime-backed programmer” and accused him of “conspiracy to conduct multiple cyber attacks and intrusions.”
Kim Jong-un reportedly has a piranha tank for James Bond-style executions
Kim Jong-un has reportedly executed numerous people since he came to power, family members included. In 2014, a state-backed Chinese newspaper claimed that Kim killed his own uncle in horrific fashion. The report (via the Independent) alleged that Jang Song-thaek was “stripped naked” and thrown to a pack of 120 starving dogs, along with at least five people from his inner circle. Hundreds of officials are said to have witnessed the gruesome spectacle.
If reports are to be believed, Kim is a big fan of utilizing animals in his executions, and he’s apparently upped his game considerably in recent years. In 2019, the Daily Star claimed that the North Korean leader had ordered the construction of a huge piranha tank in his Ryongsong residence, reportedly based on the one used by Bond villain Karl Stromberg in 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me. According to the British newspaper, he tossed one of his generals to the imported flesh-eating fish after he suspected him of planning a coup.
“Kim rules by fear,” a UK intelligence source told the tabloid. “Many enemies of the state are executed in public. He wants everyone to know, including his most trusted aides, that they are at risk of suffering a very unpleasant death if he suspects they are treasonous.” A total of 16 senior aides are thought to have been bumped off during Kim’s tenure as Supreme Leader.
Kim Jong-un's half-brother was assassinated in public
Kim Jong-un’s half-brother, Kim Jong-nam, was once set to take over from Kim Jong-il before he fell out of favor with his father and left Pyongyang for Macau, where he lived in exile. On Feb. 13, 2017, Jong-nam was due to fly into Macau from Kuala Lumpur, but he would never leave the Malaysian airport. As he waited for his flight, a woman rubbed an “oily substance” on his face without warning, per The Guardian. When she vanished, a second woman approached from behind and briefly covered his eyes and mouth with her hands. He died 20 minutes later. It turned out he had been poisoned with a potent nerve agent named VX, though the two women who administered it claimed they had no idea what it was.
The killers (two former escorts, one from Indonesia, the other from Vietnam) told Malaysian police that they’d been duped by North Korean agents and believed they were taking part in a prank for a Japanese YouTube channel. The charges against one were dropped, while the other spent just a few years behind bars. According to Dr. Nam Sung-wook, formerly of South Korea’s Intelligence agency, the Malaysian authorities were simply more interested in maintaining diplomatic ties than justice, telling The Guardian, “Kim Jong-un’s status is on the rise now he is meeting with the U.S. president and the Vietnamese prime minister and leaders in the region, and Malaysia also wants to be part of this conversation.”
Were rumors of Kim Jong-un's health greatly exaggerated?
Rumors that Kim Jong-un was gravely ill following a botched heart surgery began to spread like wildfire when he missed a celebration event marking his beloved grandfather’s birthday in April 2020. Some reports suggested that he had been left in a vegetative state, while others claimed he was actually already dead — a doctored image of him lying in this state went viral, adding to the confusion. The story began when a website ran by North Korean defectors claimed that the Supreme Leader’s cardiovascular issues had been worsening. There’s no concrete proof of this, but if Kim is in good health, then why has he gone AWOL?
Kim has a history of temporarily vanishing for health reasons. He was absent for 40 days in 2014 as he reportedly suffered from gout, but he’s never missed his grandfather’s celebration day before. Add in the fact that China previously sent a team of medical experts to North Korea (via Reuters), and it seemed pretty clear that he was in trouble, right? Not necessarily.
As of this writing, the South Korean government claims to know exactly where Kim is, telling Reuters that he is likely in isolation amid the coronavirus pandemic. “It is true that he had never missed the anniversary for Kim Il Sung’s birthday since he took power, but many anniversary events including celebrations and a banquet had been [canceled] because of coronavirus concerns,” the unification minister claimed. “I don’t think that’s particularly unusual given the current situation.”
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