Kim Jong-un's father King Jong-il passed on basketball obsession to sons and built a court in each of his homes
Kim Jong-un is described as being obsessed with the game to the point that his love for the sport bled into his foreign policies
In October 2000, the then US Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright, visited North Korea in an attempt to ease the relations between the two countries. In what is probably a historical failure of a two-day trip, the US State Department officials, who had accompanied Albright, curated the perfect item to hand over to the then North Korean leader, Kim Jong-iI as a parting gift. The officials hoped it would imply the earnest desire to mend relations and spark more direct conversations, and so they obtained an authentic NBA basketball signed by Michael Jordan.
At the time, a former State Department and CIA official, who gauged Kim's reaction told the San Diego Union-Tribune, “He may have been initially surprised by it, but you could tell he was pleased. I don't think he expected it. It was a very personal gesture, in a sense,"
“It showed him we went through some effort to get the signature. They realized it wasn't just an ordinary ball,” he added. The Union-Tribune's story from 2006 highlights Kim's love for Basketball depicting his interest in the sport as one of his peculiarities, that were yet to come to light. However, it still managed to maintain that the ball sport was of great importance to him.
His son, the present leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un, has portrayed himself to be soft-hearted and amicable in comparison to his father who was idiosyncratic and reclusive. In addition to that he to have inherited the fad for the western ball-sport from the patriarch as well. Kim Jong-un's passion for the game has been public knowledge for years, especially when he made headlines for demanding to hang out with NBA players as part of negotiating a nuclear deal with the US, in 2019. But, the story goes far back to his father's time of rule.
Kim Jong-il who grew up in North Korea, succeeding his father to the throne in 1994, once said in the state media, "We should make our youths and workers play a lot of basketball." Kim also reportedly owned "a video library of practically every game Michael Jordan ever played for the Bulls", as reported by the Union-Tribune. The story also featured a quote from a Detroit Pistons executive who journeyed to North Korea thrice and said the country surprisingly had a pretty comprehensive basketball program, possibly developed because of Kim's love for the sport. He also went as far as to call the leader "addicted."
A year after Albright's visit, The North Korean government extended a formal invitation to Jordan to pay a visit to the country in 2001. He declined the offer, but if he'd been in attendance at the time, he would have become the first high-profile American celebrity to step foot on North Korean soil and meet with its leader. If a North Korean leader ever came close to being in the same proximity as an American basketball icon, it was Kim Jong-un at a basketball game with Bulls alum, Dennis Rodman.
Kim's interest in the sport has also wormed its way into his government's foreign policy. In 1990, a State Department official who led some level-talks told the Union-Tribune that the conversation was halted when his North Korean antithesis realized that a Bulls game had just begun. The North Korean official seems passionate about American basketball to the point that he had extensive knowledge of payers and past games.
During Kim Jong-il's reign, the US officials also discussed the idea of sending American basketball players as coaches to the North Korean city of Pyongyang — a kind of "basketball diplomacy" modeled after a similar "ping-pong diplomacy" outreach program with China. Evidently, that never happened. However, Kim Jong-un had taken a liking to that idea and even used basketball as a rare opportunity for North Korea's outreach with the US, once. The country sent a North Korean basketball player named Ri Myung-hun all the way to Canada, escorted by a diplomat, a security guard, and a coach. They also invited NBA teams to come and scout him and Ri, who apparently had a talent for the game, started going by Michael Ri after his namesake, Jordan, because of his looming 7-feet-7-inch height.
At first, the State Department blocked Ri's recruitment, saying it would be a breach in sanctions. But by the time the agency realized this was an attempt of diplomatic outreach from North Korea, by offering up their best basketball player, it was a little too late. Ri returned to Pyongyang.
Kim Jong-il passed on his love for the sport to his sons, and apparently even built basketball courts in every one of his family home across the country. In his memoir, the Japanese sushi chef who prepared meals for the Kim family for years before quitting penned that the sons would play basketball frequently, often carefully analyzing the game in its aftermath. Even when the two Kim progenies, Kim Jong-chol, and Kim Jong-un, went away to boarding school in Switzerland, under the guise that they were the children of a local embassy chauffeur, they brought with them all kinds of conversations revolving around football. According to an NK News story, fellow students of the brothers described them as being obsessed with the game.
Kim Jong-un, the younger out of the two, and the future leader of North Korea, came off as a shy person except when he was on the basketball court, as a student in Switzerland. The Washington Post reported in 2009 that he would be often seen in Nike Air Jordans and hated to lose on the court. He reportedly "spent hours doing meticulous pencil drawings of Chicago Bulls superstar Michael Jordan," whom he "worshiped." Kim lived in a spacious apartment outside of campus, and the entire room was filled with basketball memorabilia. The Post also reported that it included photos of Kim with Toni Kukoc of the Chicago Bulls and Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers in the late 1990s. It was also the time Rodman played for Kim's favorite team — the Chicago Bulls.