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N.K. leader’s grandson draws international attention

Looking like an ordinary teenager, Kim asks media to respect privacy as he starts school in Bosnia

As one of the most reclusive countries in the world, North Korea has a strange force that draws outsiders’ attention and curiosity to the veiled lives of its leader and the “royal family.”

When Kim Jong-il’s grandson met a media scrum at a private high school he started attending this month, the 16-year-old curtly replied “No comment. Please mind my privacy” in fluent English, repeating the behavior of his father and uncles who had reluctantly revealed themselves to the curious eyes of outsiders in the past.

Kim’s first grandson Han-sol is the first student from North Korea to attend any of the 12 United World College schools across the globe, officials at the school’s Mostar branch said.

The grandson Kim came to the school in the southern region of Bosnia after being refused a visa to Hong Kong, where he had planned to study at another branch, according to the school officials.

Seen in TV footage and photographs revealed by foreign and local media outlets, Kim looked like any other teenagers ―- though he was accompanied by two well-built private bodyguards everywhere he went.

Wearing black-rimmed glasses and two earrings, Kim told a Bosnian TV news channel that he was “very happy” to be in Mostar, adding he liked “the food and people” there.

With TV news crews from Japan, South Korea and other countries striving for days to get a glimpse of the teenager in his dormitory or on his way to classes, a spokesman of the school held an official press conference on Oct. 14, asking the media to “respect the privacy” of the young boy.

“The person is a minor and is not in public business... he is a regular student like all the others. He will have the same conditions, the same accommodation, the same food,” Jasminka Bratic told a packed press conference at the school.

“The pupil has arrived... he got all the necessary permits to stay in our school for the next two years,” she added, urging reporters to help Kim receive his education in a normal environment.

“We are obliged to provide our students education, security and privacy,” she said.

Students also seem eager to know more about their dorm-mate from the little-known country.

“I was curious about him, but Han-sol seemed like a regular teenager like us,” a student who shares a dorm with Kim told a local media outlet. “He speaks English fluently and appears to be a very open person.”

Another fellow student said Kim was sharing his room with a senior Libyan student.

A total of 154 students are enrolled at the Mostar branch of UWC for 2011-12 including one North Korean and one Libyan, according to the school’s website. 
North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s grandson Kim Han-sol, 16, leaves his dorm days after he enrolled in the United World College Bosnia branch. (Yonhap News)
North Korean leader Kim Jong-il’s grandson Kim Han-sol, 16, leaves his dorm days after he enrolled in the United World College Bosnia branch. (Yonhap News)

Kim will be attending English language classes in chemistry, physics, mathematics or economics at the school with other students, aged between 16 and 18, according to school officials who said the tuition fee is about 12,500 euros per year.

The students sleep, eat and spend their leisure time in a building in another part of the town.

The UWC is a network of school and colleges throughout the world, attended notably by pupils from war-affected areas, and aimed at promoting international and intercultural understanding.

The school in Mostar, about 100 kilometers south of Sarajevo, opened in 2006 and now has 124 students from 34 countries and territories, including Iraq, Israel and the Palestinian territories.

The school is located at the former front line that divided Mostar in two when war broke out between Muslim Bosnians and Catholic Croats in 1992-95. The opening of the school was credited with contributing to reconciliation in the city.

Kim appears to have chosen the UWC due to the fact many of the students in the school come from “at least semi-famous families” from various parts of the world, observers say.

“He appears to have liked the fact the teachers and students at UWC wouldn’t treat him too differently,” a school official said on the condition of anonymity.

Other observers say Kim’s decision to attend the school in Bosnia might be related to his father Kim Jong-nam’s plans to move to Europe next year.

Han-Sol’s father, the North Korean leader’s exiled eldest son, is currently living in Macau, southern China.

Jong-nam apparently dropped out of contention to become the heir of his totalitarian state after he was caught sneaking into Japan with a bogus passport in 2001 to “visit Tokyo Disneyland.”

All three sons of Kim Jong-Il studied in Europe as teenagers, including Kim Jong-un, the heir apparent.

Jong-un, who is said to be no older than 27, was first officially announced as successor last year, indicating the growing urgency to transfer power from the ailing dictator.

The elder Kim, 69, apparently suffered a stroke in 2008 and has not recovered completely with observers saying he will not live for more than five years.

Observers note that Jong-nam may have ignored the “Kim royal family education trait” of sending children to top schools in the neutral Switzerland to protect his eldest son.

Jong-nam is considered “a potential threat” by the heir apparent while he is on generally good terms with second son Jong-chol because they share the same mother, according to Ha Tae-keung, an anti-Pyongyang activist who runs a radio station in Seoul.

In his recently-published comic book, Ha described the second son Jong-chol as a “peacemaker with a sensitive personality,” while calling Jong-nam, “a schemer who has long eyed reform and open-door policies to solve food shortages and overall poverty issues in North Korea.”

Such views led to bad relations with his father as well as his younger sibling, the successor, according to the book.

Aware of his brother’s feelings toward him, Jong-nam would not have wanted to send his son to a region where he could be closely watched, observers say.

By Shin Hae-in and news reports (