SEOUL, South Korea — Kim Jong-un admits he’s never met an American journalist, but that doesn’t stop our frigid winter evening from being a convivial one. We clink glasses, swig a soju shot, and plunk a few slabs of pork belly on the grill.
Kim Jong-un loves greasy pork, which is why he’s pudgy around the middle.
When dining with Kim Jong-un, Korean etiquette is a must.
He’s clearly of higher stature than me, so when our glasses meet, mine is slightly lower than his. I pour for him first, always with two hands. His glass, according to drinking custom, must never be empty for too long under my watch.
"You can be sure there are thousands of us"
Finally boozed up after the fifth or sixth shot, he kicks back, orders yet another bottle, and bellows, “You drink soju like a real Korean!”
This is my chance to press him for answers, and the inebriated Kim Jong-un soon gives me his spiel.
He detests American military bases in the South, which he protested in his college days.
As long as the Yankees stay put, he argues, the prospect of a single, unified Korea will be far-fetched.
But there is hope. Should North and South Korea join forces, not only will the Americans be forced out, but another mutual enemy, Japan, will quiver at the sight of a unified Korea. That means compensation for its history of war crimes.
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Clearly, not every American wins Kim Jong-un’s heart — except when he’s drunk.
Then, I probe his thoughts on the news: How do you feel that North Korea has reportedly banned its citizens from using your name? And what will become of the other Kim Jong-uns who had to pick a new one?
That's right: North Korea has apparently decreed that no one but the boyish dictator himself can use the name Kim Jong Un (as it's typically transliterated in the North). According to South Korea’s state television broadcaster, the ban was part of a 2011 North Korean edict just before the death of the former dictator, Kim Jong Il — even if it was just recently reported in the rest of the world. Although the North Korean regime hasn’t confirmed the reports, the South Korean government thinks the name ban is probably genuine.
“That funny dictator! I heard about that!” cries Kim Jong-un, just before heading out. “Nobody here cares about that guy!”
Americans may know Kim as a celebrity dictator with his own (now-canceled) Seth Rogen flick. But in North and South Korea, Kim Jong-un is a surprisingly common unisex name, akin to (but not quite as common as) Sam Johnson or Alex Smith.
So if you’re an ambitious foreign correspondent and you can’t get an interview with the ruthless dictator Kim Jong Un (and trust us, you can’t), you can always settle for a dodgy rendezvous, set up via South Korean messaging apps. And oddly enough, unless you ask or see a photo, you can never be totally sure if these folks are male or female (or something in between) until you meet them in person.
In fact, we apologize for potentially smashing the boy dictator’s ego, but the majority of Kim Jong-uns seem to be women, and none seemed terribly afraid of the world’s youngest and most inexperienced despot. “Pudgy little fat boy wants to tell me how to use my name?” jokingly exclaims a young Korean American who works for a marketing company (and spells it Kim Jong-eun). “I’ll kick his ass! Bring it on!”
A third Kim Jong-un, a female college freshman in Seoul, prefers deploying her sense of humor. “When I introduce myself, I bring up the North Korean leader intentionally sometimes,” said Kim, a college freshman in Seoul. “Just to add a humorous touch to the conversation.”
Of course, these commentators were hurling invective from the relative safety of democratic South Korea, where they’re unlikely to suffer consequences. North Koreans are almost certainly taking the directive more seriously.
Southerners told GlobalPost that the dictator’s name ban mirrors pre-modern Korean history, when subjects were forced to change their names in deference to the king. Also barred were the characters used to spell names that happened to be used by monarchs.
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Still, there are differences in the way North and South Koreans treat their names. North Koreans usually Romanize their royal’s name as “Kim Jong Un,” but South Koreans typically prefer a hyphen, writing it as “Kim Jong-un.”
The spelling variation “Kim Jong-eun” is also common, although the Korean characters always match the Generalissimo’s.
No public record exists of the number of Kim Jong-uns in South Korea, although the government keeps tabs on its population through censuses and national ID cards.
“You can be sure there are thousands of us,” suggests my friend Kim Jong-un, the hard-drinking businessman.
Max Soeun Kim contributed reporting.
This story originally appeared at GlobalPost.
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