Kim Han-sol (left) at UWC Mostar. Image from guardian.co.uk.

The United World Colleges are open for everyone – and that’s one of the reasons why I love them. Last year I heard rumours that a North Korean student would be attending a UWC for the first time ever – and not just any North Korean student, but Kim Han-sol, a grandson of the former North Korean ruler Kim Jong-il and nephew of the current ruler Kim Jong-un. Some people seemed to be not too happy about the news, however, I thought it was brilliant: I think it’s crucial that persons from whichever part of society they are born into go to UWC, because whatever ideas they might come with, they will be challenged in a way they won’t have been challenged before. That’s why UWC alumni include the Dutch crown prince Willem-Alexander, Nelson Mandela’s grandson Mandla, orphans from SOS villages in China and Afghani refugees (and plain ol’ nobodies like me 🙂 ). It’s the extreme multi-cultural/multi-societal kind of exposure and the realisation that there isn’t just one way of existing in this world that leads to better understanding of our differences and, in the long term, might make a difference (as overly idealistic as that may sound).

Kim Han-sol, not only because of his lineage, isn’t an average North Korean. Born in 1995, he is the eldest son of Kim Jong-nam, who was first in line to succession to Kim Jong-il until he fell out of favour (apparently due to a secretly attempted visit to Disneyland Japan in 2001), with Kim Han-sol’s uncle becoming the new North Korean leader after Kim Jong-il’s death in 2011. Kim Han-sol’s family meanwhile moved to Macau, where he spent much of his childhood (there is no precise date for the move, but Wikipedia says it was reported that the family was living there in “late 2003“). He has obviously had a privileged upbringing in some sense (though surely also a haunted-by-the-press one), but interestingly never met his late grandfather. Both his father and himself have, on the rare occasions that they have made public statements, spoken out against the regime, something that is quite intriguing given how close in lineage they are to those power. It’s an indicator of a family rift and that perhaps that not all is well in the North…

In September 2011 the United World Colleges released a formal press statement that Kim Han-sol would be the first North Korean student to attend one of the colleges. Originally slated to go to Li Po Chun United World College (Hong Kong), he was denied a student visa by the Hong Kong government. He was then admitted to the United World College in Mostar (Bosnia Herzegovina), where he is currently in his second year. That Kim Han-sol ended up in Mostar seems just perfect to me. Not that it matters much which UWC one goes to (the experience will always be life-changing, because whether you are in Canada or Swaziland or Italy, you end up living with people from 70+ countries), however, the post-war context of Bosnia Herzegovina and the college’s explicit foundational aim to “to contribute to the reconstruction of a post-conflict society” (wikipedia) seem like a great fit.

Kim Han-sol in an interview with Elisabeth Rehn.

Kim Han-sol was recently interviewed by Elisabeth Rehn, a former Finnish politician and now President of the UWC in Mostar. Rehn has also served as the UN Under-Secretary General and as the Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The  interview was done for Finnish television and is linked below in two parts. Note that some short sections are in Swedish, although the interview itself is in English.

Final note: Some YouTube commenters are complaining about Rehn’s English. I strongly disagree. I am thrilled that this is not some sort of slick BBC/CNN/(insert TV station of choice) interview done by a professional journalist with perfect native English, but this is rather a very real and personal conversation. Besides, this is how much of the world speaks English: with an accent. The English language is not owned a limited number of nations and, if you think about it, there are probably more people who speak, for example, Indian English than British English. If you want hide in a bubble of a restricted range of accents (and I know TV stations certainly like to live in this bubble, as I have heard, first hand, from a former flatmate who worked for the BBC), that’s fine, but don’t bash the rest of us with your unrealistic demands. *end rant* (Sorry, but this is one of my pet peeves! Especially when it is monolingual speakers being all uppity about ‘their language’!)

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