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Few expected Kim Jong Un to last long when he became the leader of North Korea in December 2011. His country was isolated and laboring under U.N. sanctions. The economy was in a shambles. To make matters worse, he had little experience running anything, let alone one of the world’s most oppressive governments. But the 27-year-old was no milksop. He was clever, ruthless and had more geostrategic nous than anybody had anticipated. Today, his grip on power is all but absolute.

None of this was preordained. At least on paper, two other male siblings stood ahead in the line of succession. Another barrier was the Japanese roots of his mother, Ko Yong Hui. Though ethnically Korean, she was born in Osaka, where she was known as Hime Takada. Her family left when she was 10, along with over 93,000 other Korean migrants who, starting in 1959, followed Pyongyang’s entreaties to return and build the motherland.

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