BERNE/VIENNA Former pupils of a school in Switzerland believe the young lad who loved playing basketball and watching action movies and was always "good for a laugh" may have been none other than Kim Jong-un, son and anointed successor of the late North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.
Joao Micaelo, who now works as a chef in a Vienna restaurant, told Reuters he was a good friend of a North Korean teenager with a different name when they both attended the German-speaking Steinhoelzli school in Berne from 1998 to 2000.
But he only learnt of his true identity in mid-2009 from Japanese and South Korean journalists, he said, adding he recognized him in photographs.
"He was a big fan of the Chicago Bulls ... His life was basketball at this time," Micaelo said. "I think 80 percent of our time we were playing basketball."
North Korean state media announced the death of Kim Jong-il on Monday and hailed his son as his successor. But little is known about Kim Jong-un in the outside world, not even his exact age.
Local administration education director Ueli Studer told Reuters that a boy known as Pak Un, registered as a child of a North Korean embassy employee, attended the Steinhoelzli school in the Berne suburb of Liebefeld from 1998 until just after starting 9th grade in late 2000.
"The student Pak Un attended the school for two to three years and left abruptly in the middle of a school year," he said, adding that this was not unusual for children of embassy employees.
"Pak Un attended a class for non-German speaking pupils but then quickly moved over to another class. He was described as well-integrated, diligent and ambitious. His hobby was basketball," Studer said.
Studer said he could not confirm nor deny that Pak Un was in fact Kim Jong-un.
Micaelo said they attended the school when he was about 12-16 years old but he had not heard from his old friend for a decade. As schoolmates they used to play basketball, watch Jackie Chan action movies, do homework, and play video games.
The Korean youth was very intelligent and a good student, Micaelo said. "He was a good friend. He was very quiet. He was a nice guy."
'GOOD FOR A LAUGH'
Micaelo said his friend showed talent in drawing and mathematics even though he had some initial problems with learning German. He had been told while at school that Kim Jong-un was the son of the North Korean ambassador.
Marco Imhof, another former schoolmate, told Swiss television last year that his friend Pak Un spoke a mixture of German and the local Bern dialect of Swiss German.
"He was funny. Always good for a laugh," Imhof said. "I can't believe that I played basketball with him here and now he could rule North Korea."
The Steinhoelzli school is a state-run school founded in 1956 and attended by many children from foreign families. Its motto is "We produce quality."
The modern school building, which underwent renovation last year, is located in a middle-class neighborhood of apartment buildings. The North Korean Embassy is on the opposite side of town.
Swiss newspapers have speculated that Jong-un attended a private, English-speaking international school in another suburb of Berne before moving to Steinhoelzli in 1998. But some media said that might have been his elder brother.
Kim Jong-un is said to have lived at Kirchstrasse 10 during his stay in Berne, an apartment block about a 10-minute walk from the Steinhoelzli school.
Whether or not a Swiss education might lead to changes in North Korea's authoritarian political system remains to be seen.
"If the boy really was Kim Jong-un, he must have learnt a lot about democracy because that is one of the subjects being taught in the 7th and 8th grade," Studer said.
(Additional reporting by Silke Koltrowitz in Zurich; Editing by Angus MacSwan)