When Kim Jong Un came to power in 2011, many observers focused on his schooling in Switzerland as a hopeful sign that he would reform North Korea and establish better relations with the West. This hypothesis now appears to have had missed the mark by a fairly wide margin.
However, it is little known that Kim Jong Un was not the first of the Kim family dynasty to study abroad. His father Kim Jong Il actually studied English in the former British colony of Malta in the early 1970s.
KIM JONG IL’S ENGLISH TEACHER
The first confirmed sighting of Kim Jong Il in Malta was in 1973, where he was staying in a private villa apparently built for him by the former Prime Minister of Malta, Dominic Mintoff. During the year he spent there, Kim Jong Il met frequently with Mintoff who presumably taught the future North Korean leader the ins and outs of crafty statesmanship, which characterized the Maltese leader’s political rule.
While living in Malta, Kim Jong Il was given English lessons by University of Malta Professor Daniel Massa. Eight North Koreans had arrived, but only one sat with Massa for one-on-one private instruction — situational English during weekly one-hour lessons, with the occasional additional weekly lesson, for one academic year. Not realizing who his new charge was at first, the pieces fell into place after a colleague noticed North Korean security officers stationed outside Massa’s office door and window during lessons.
“His English was so-so but he improved quite a bit,” Massa told NK News in a phone interview. “He was a serious student and came to lessons on time.”
Although Kim Jong Il “worked really hard” on his English skills according to Massa, the portly dictator-to-be tended to become irritable when lessons cut into his lunchtime.
A VERY ODD COUPLE
The close relationship between a social welfare state located in the Mediterranean Sea and an isolated Stalinist state in East Asia does seem rather unlikely. However, both the island nation’s prime minister, Dom “The Architect” Mintoff, and the Great Leader Kim Il Sung, used each other for their own ends. Mintoff supplied Kim Il Sung with not only language training for his son, but also a new location in which to promote the Juche ideology and curb South Korean influence. In return, the North Koreans gave Mintoff weapons and military training for his personal security squad.
“Mintoff was always interested in using his foreign ‘friends’ than actually fostering friendship for friendship’s sake,” said Michael Falzon, a former government minister who served under two Maltese Nationalist Party (PN) administrations (1987-1992 and 1992-1996).
HOW IT ALL BEGAN
Like Kim Il Sung, Dom Mintoff was a masterful manipulator of the Soviet Union and China. Deviating between close relations with the two communist superpowers, Mintoff was able to use Malta’s unique geographical location in the Mediterranean to his own advantage as he received aid and grants by playing these governments off of one another.
“I have been in other communist countries,” Mintoff once said, “and in none of them have I felt that communism is a deeply felt conviction. In China it is.”
Eager to help their staunch Mediterranean supporter, the Chinese put Mintoff in touch with the North Koreans, and in the summer of 1982, Mintoff traveled to Pyongyang to meet Great Leader Kim Il Sung. A North Korean song-and-dance troupe welcomed the Prime Minister by performing — in Maltese — the song of Malta’s Labor Party supporters, “Ma Taghmlu Xejn Mal-Perit Mintoff,” which translates to “You will do nothing with architect Mintoff.” (An architect, Mintoff was dubbed, naturally, “The Architect” during his political career.) This performance of what Falzon described as a “silly song,” is still remembered by many Maltese today, and is often used to poke fun at Mintoff’s controversial legacy.
Mintoff’s trip was intended to foster new areas of cooperation between the two countries, and the Maltese delegation was impressed with “immaculately clean” and “well maintained” Pyongyang.
“From what I saw, even if selectively chosen by our hosts, I arrived at the conclusion that most of the extreme negative comments regularly made in the western media are prompted by political propaganda,” Joseph Sammut, a Maltese senior civil servant who accompanied Mintoff on his trip to North Korea, told NK News via email.
However, Sammut admitted that even though he “loves discipline,” it would “be most difficult to orientate oneself in a highly regimented environment where the prevailing ideology is the embodiment of the leader’s wisdom.”
“The Korean leader was considered as a deity by the people around him, yet during our meetings he was affable, with a smile and walked with a swagger,” Sammut continued. “My impression of him is that he was a very direct and practical man.”
This practicality especially displayed itself when a camera was around, as the large cyst on Kim Il Sung’s neck was instantly noticeable to the Maltese delegation.
“When we met him he did not try to hide it in any way,” recalls Sammut, “but it appeared that photographers always chose angles from which the bulge was not visible.”
After visiting North Korea, Mintoff obliged his new North Korean friend by closing South Korea’s consulate in 1984, and encouraging the opening of North Korean-inspired factories in Malta. In one instance, Mintoff’s government opened a short-lived factory that manufactured medicines based on Korean ginseng.
“Attempts at opening so-called North Korean factories, that actually belonged to the Maltese state, all failed,” Falzon told NK News via email. “Those that managed to make it to opening day and employed people went bankrupt within a short time.”
In 1982, a secret military assistance agreement was signed between the DPRK and Mintoff’s Labor Party government, which provided the Maltese armed forces with large quantities of small arms, mortars, and anti-aircraft guns at no cost. Kim Il Sung also sent four specially-trained North Korean military officers to Valletta in order to train Mintoff’s elite military squad, the Special Mobile Unit, which focused on containing social unrest on the island.
The deal was publicly exposed by Eddie Fenech Adami, the leader of Malta’s nationalist PN Party. In 1983, Adami claimed in the Times of Malta that the North Korean weapons “would not be used if Malta was invaded, but could be used if the Maltese were to demonstrate against the Government.”
The international secretary of the Labor Party, Leo Brincat, apparently berated Adami for exposing this deal, which North Korean military analyst Joseph Bermudez believes involved the transfer of weapons to members of the Red Brigade and the PIRA (Provincial Irish Republican Army) at the behest of the DPRK and Libya, while four Special Purpose Corps advisors provided training to these groups, and possibly others. (When NK News reached out to Brincat for comment, he insisted that he was in “no way involved” in the secret military agreement with the North Koreans.)
Still, some doubt the veracity of these reports.
“I do not believe the rumors that some of these weapons were sold to terrorist groups in Europe,” said Falzon. “Mintoff was not that silly.”
As it was later revealed, Dr. Alex Sceberras Trigona, Mintoff’s former Foreign Minister, was in fact the main negotiator behind the secret military agreement. Years later, when a Maltese journalist asked Trigona why he had made the pact, he received a simple, semi-cryptic two-word response:
Main picture: NK News edit, archive picture
When Kim Jong Un came to power in 2011, many observers focused on his schooling in Switzerland as a hopeful sign that he would reform North Korea and establish better relations with the West. This hypothesis now appears to have had missed the mark by a fairly wide margin.However, it is little known that Kim Jong Un was not the first of the Kim family dynasty to study abroad. His father Kim
Benjamin R. Young is an Assistant Professor at Dakota State University. He holds a Ph.D. from George Washington University, and focuses his research on modern Korea, Cold War international history, and Marxism in the Third World.