Kim Jong Un graduated 'with honors' from an elite military academy, but experts are skeptical he ever attended

Kim Jong Un generalsVice Marshall Hwang Pyong So (bottom L), in full Korean People?s Army uniform, watches an air show by the Korean People?s Air Force with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (C) on May 10, 2014 in this photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA). Hwang Pyong So, now a top military aide to the North's leader Kim Jong Un, has had an unprecedented rise to the top rungs of North Korea's leadership in the space of a few years. With intense speculation on the whereabouts of Kim after his disappearance from official media for over a month, Hwang is even more in focus.KCNA North Korea / REUTERS

  • North Korean propaganda says that Kim Jong Un attended an elite military university named for his grandfather, who based his own mythology on his military background.
  • However, insiders point out that there are no records of Kim's attendance, and no photos of him there - which would be useful propaganda to build his cult of personality as the country's dictator.
  • According to propaganda accounts, the young Kim was so adept at military strategy he was soon training his instructors.
  • "If Kim Jong Un actually attended that college, he has pictures, he has a record, and he has friends," a former North Korean military member said. "But [none] of the North Korean elite could find his picture and his friends."
  • Even if Kim never attended the military academy, it's possible he received private tutoring on military operations and strategy, which informed his leadership of North Korea's massive military.
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North Korea's Kim Jong Un is not only the leader of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, he is the Supreme Commander of the Korean People's Army (KPA), the fourth-largest military in the world.

North Korea's military is part of its foundation; Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Un's grandfather and the founder of the so-called "Hermit Kingdom," used his own military service - as a guerilla fighting against the Japanese occupation of Korea - to burnish his cult of personality, according to Washington Post reporter Anna Fifield's book, "The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un."

Military service is baked into the North Korean constitution; "National defense is the supreme duty and honor of citizens," it says, and military service is generally compulsory. Kim has never served in the North Korean military but reportedly graduated near the top of his class at a prestigious military academy, a claim that experts and a former North Korean military member found highly suspect.

North Korea spends approximately 25% of its GDP on its military, including its nuclear program, spending $3.5 billion each year on its forces between 2004 and 2014. It boasts 1.1 million troops, about 5% of its population, according to CFR.

According to North Korean propaganda, the 35-year-old Kim Jong Un prepared to lead this massive force by attending Kim Il Sung Military University in Pyongyang; experts said it was more likely that he had received some instruction from military trainers associated with this university.

Some propaganda accounts cited by Fifield say Kim, who reportedly started at the academy when he was 18, was such a natural at military strategy that he was soon training his instructors.

Kim's 'elite' alma mater

Kim Il Sung Military University is a "military institution for educating elite military officers," according to Bruce W. Bennett, senior defense analyst at The RAND Corporation. It was established in 1952, according to North Korea Leadership Watch, and is one of several military training schools.

"The students of this university are middle level officers such as majors and lieutenant colonels," Bennett said, equating the university to institutions like the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.

"It is the university that is a gateway to becoming a senior officer in the Korean People's Army (KPA). Most of North Korean military generals studied in this university when they were mid-career," Bennett told INSIDER via email.

Kim Il Sung Military UniversityAn image of Pyongyang, with Kim Il Sung Military University outlined.North Korea Leadership Watch/Google Images

Fifield's book, and official North Korean propaganda, report that Kim studied here alongside his older brother, Kim Jong Chol.

"It was their mother's idea to send them to the military academy, a way to bolster her sons' claim to succession," Fifield writes. Kim Jong Un and Kim Jong Chol are the children of Kim Jong Il and Ko Yong Hui, to whom he was not officially married. Kim Jong Il installed Ko Yong Hui and her sons in a home in his compound, ensuring they were well cared for.

North Korean militarySoldiers shout slogans under the stands with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and other officials.REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

Kim Jong Un reportedly entered the university in 2002, after his early education in Switzerland, and began studying "juche-oriented military leadership," Fifield writes, referring to the North Korean concept of juche, or self-reliance. Juche is essential to the North Korean identity, although the country was economically dependent on the Soviet Union until its collapse. China is now its most important economic relationship.

"I would expect that most of the training at Kim Il Sung Military University would be on military operations, military history, and political indoctrination," Bennett told INSIDER via email.

"But a big part of the curriculum is likely also competition between the personnel to see how they deal with each other physically and mentally, which leads to forming bonds of friendship critical as officers are promoted."

Kim Jong UnNorth Korean leader Kim Jong Un visits the Command of the Strategic Force of the Korean People's Army (KPA) in an unknown location in North Korea in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency.Reuters/KCNA

'A natural at military strategy'

While Kim Jong Un never served in the KPA, North Korea Leadership Watch (NKLW) contends that it's likely some students are able to enter Kim Il Sung Military University without any prior service, straight out of high school.

NKLW describes Kim Il Sung Military University as modeled on Soviet military academies; while there might be classes on North Korean military history, the structure and academics of Kim Il Sung Military University find their closest analogs in the Soviet system.

According to North Korean official state media, Fifield writes, Kim Jong Un was "such a natural at military strategy that he was instructing the instructors rather than learning from them."

He graduated on December 24, 2006, Fifield writes, "with honors," after writing a final dissertation on "A Simulation for the Improvement of Accuracy in the Operational Map by the Global Positioning System (GPS)."

But a former member of the North Korean military who now lives in the US and is familiar with the Kim family said it was unlikely that Kim Jong Un actually attended Kim Il Sung Military University, at least not in the traditional sense.

"According to North Korean propaganda, Kim Jong Un attended Kim Il Sung Military University, but I couldn't find any of his classmates or Army mates. If he really attended that university, somebody should know that he attended," the former military member said.

"If Kim Jong Un actually attended that college, he has pictures, he has a record, and he has friends. But [none] of the North Korean elite could find his picture and his friends. I think it's a kind of propaganda," the former military member said, noting that the North Korean propaganda department would have exploited any evidence of Kim Jong Un having attended the university to build up his cult of personality.

Rather than actually physically attending classes, there were "probably private instructors visiting his house to give him a lecture," the former military member said.

"Kim Il Sung Military University is a more closed university, the students are military officers, not civilians, so they can keep the secret that Kim Jong Un didn't actually attend."

Kim would have been unique in attending the military school named for his grandfather; "I don't think most of the Kim family become military officers - they avoid becoming military officers," the former military member said.

"They have a good life [...] they don't need to go [in] the military to risk their lives."

In order to qualify for a school like Kim Il Sung Military University, potential recruits must have, "superior service records, excellent physical condition and trusted political reliability" and have "a flawless family background, be popular among fellow soldiers, and receive the approval of their commanding and political officers," according to Joseph Bermudez's book "Shield of the Great Leader: The Armed Forces of North Korea."

NKLW contends that Kim probably had private tutoring for at least a few years, and that he was likely a very good student, exhausting teachers with his questions. The academics on military operations are thought to be rigorous, even if it's unlikely Kim also participated in the physical and professional competitions that other students must face.

In whatever capacity he studied with the university's instructors, it influenced his relationship with the North Korean military today, in particular the aggressive missile testing North Korea undertook under the third Kim leader.

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