I do not really remember any more 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, and he learned German also — at least the basics.I think, he understands even Swiss German, which, over the years, all of us appropriated. Yes, it happens automatically when you live there.
Unlike his father, 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 extremely simply. Even in later years, it was still black jeans, black socks, maximum color with a gray T-shirt. One time he appeared in a grey T-shirt with blue stripes, and classmate said jokingly to him: “Going out like that 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 our homes even once, since none of us were home. Most of us had diplomats as parents, other [parents were] businesspeople; a few came from rich Swiss families. There were people from America, Europe, Asia, many Jews and many Arabs, but in three years, only one dispute about the Middle East conflict. We argued [haben gestritten] about football, not about politics.
Pak Chol was also on the football [soccer] team, together with several Americans. One Israeli taught him [beigebracht] basketball. He also spent much time with a South Korean; I think this was because the South Korean could draw comics very well. Pak Chol liked comics; his favorite were Japanese manga.
As for girls, none of us had this much on the mind, but there were parties. 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, but this in itself was nothing special. The Americans or the Israelis were also at times not easy to visit – because of the security provisions of the embassies.
The ISB is a really 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. 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 have 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 always arrived in the school together, they sat side by side and were always together otherwise. We thought nothing of it, as, sure, they were the only North Koreans. Nationalities 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 it always felt faster with friends who came from your own country.Probably for this reason, no one particularly surprised when Chol Pak 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 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.
If I now consider what he [Kwang] showed to everyone, I can’t imagine that he was merely athletic. Once, 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 athletlic fighter; perhaps he was a soldier who just looked very young.
At 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 North Korean 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 anyway.
When today 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 [Verrückt!]! I can not imagine that a dictator would come from our school. Es The school was actually permeated with concepts of tolerance and peace and equality, holding hands and stuff. Naturally, although it might sound like it, 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 Chol Pak, 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.