In August 1998, a shy North Korean teenager arrived at a Swiss state school with a fake name "Pak Un", a collection of genuine, top-of-the-line Nike sneakers and a passion for American basketball.
"We only dreamed about having such shoes. He was wearing them," recalled Nikola Kovacevic, a former schoolmate of the curiously well-heeled North Korean. Each pair, estimates Kovacevic, cost more than $200 -- at least four times the average monthly salary in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, where at least 1 million people had died as a result of food shortages in the mid- and late 1990s.
The North Korean fell in with a group of mostly immigrant kids who shared his love of the National Basketball Association. Kovacevic, who shot hoops with him most days, said Pak Un was a fiercely competitive player. "He was very explosive. He could make things happen. He was the playmaker," said Kovacevic, who now works as a tech specialist in the Swiss army. "If I wasn't sure I could make a shot, I always knew he could."
Marco Imhof, another Swiss basketball buddy, said the Korean was tough and fast, good at both shooting and dribbling. "He hated to lose. Winning was very important," recalled Imhof.
At his spacious Swiss apartment, said one friend who visited, the Korean had a room filled with American basketball paraphernalia. He proudly showed off photographs of himself standing with Toni Kukoc of the Chicago Bulls and Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers. (It is unclear where the pictures were taken. On at least one occasion, a car from the North Korean Embassy drove "Pak Un" to Paris to watch an NBA exhibition game.)
That North Korean teen, Kim Jong Un, now stands to take over North Korea from his ailing father, Kim Jong Il. Among the questions looming is if he's got game.