Understanding Kim Jong Un
February 23, 2015 10:40 PM   Subscribe

"Nothing better defines Kim than how little we actually know about him. When asked, even the most respected outside experts on North Korea in the United States and in South Korea—not to mention inside the White House—invariably provide details that turn out to be traceable to Dennis Rodman or to a Japanese sushi chef named Kenji Fujimoto, who was employed by the ruling family from 1988 to 2001, and who now peddles trivial details about them (such as how Kim II once sent him to Beijing to pick up some food at McDonald’s)."
posted by MoonOrb (39 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I swear a few years ago on Fark or Reddit someone claimed to have gone to the same international school as him in Sweden. Could be complete BS though.
posted by reiichiroh at 10:44 PM on February 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

I have a theory that the enmity of the US toward NK is information-based and directly related to NKs apparent success in avoiding spies.
posted by rhizome at 10:52 PM on February 23, 2015 [2 favorites]

Ten years BEFORE Kim Jong Un was born, I was able to visit Panmunjom.... at that time it was evident that it was a facade for both North Korea and South Korea (the UN forces)... There was little truth to either side of the "line" that ran down the middle of the compound. Kim Jong Un is a product of his country.
posted by HuronBob at 10:53 PM on February 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

I was always under the impression that Kim Jong Un (and Kim Jong Il) didn't really have a say in top level matters in NK, that it was the generals at the top of the armed forces who actually call the shots and the Kim Jongs were little more than figureheads. Am I wrong in believing that?
posted by PenDevil at 11:14 PM on February 23, 2015 [1 favorite]

The school he was at was in Switzerland, actually. Didn't go there with him, but went to school at the same time to a normal school a few km away. Very weird to think about.
posted by Zarkonnen at 11:37 PM on February 23, 2015

Maybe not Sun, but Il and his father Sung really did rule with an iron fist. We have plenty of other examples in our lifetimes of military dictatorships successfully led by a strong man.
posted by clarknova at 11:47 PM on February 23, 2015

The Swiss boarding school experience sounded promising but I read (somewhere) that he didn't actually go to class. He stayed in his private villa and played video games or something. I assume one of his lackeys took the exams.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 11:49 PM on February 23, 2015

PenDevil, that is a semi-popular devil's advocate hypothesis, but then he dud have the general married to his father's sister (?) executed, possibly for trivial reasons, so it does tend to reinforce the absolute/personal rule interpretation.
posted by dhartung at 12:16 AM on February 24, 2015

From what I've read, Kim Sung Il did actually lead, as did his son. There's an interesting story in a defector's memoir, Dear Leader: Poet, Spy, Escapee by Jang Jin Sung, about the power succession from Sung Il to Jong Il. In a nutshell, Jong Il was given the propaganda department to run, and he parlayed that entry point into taking over the country while his father was still alive.

He covered his deeds and true power by making the propaganda louder and louder in its praise of daddy. It's hard to take someone down when they're showering the supposed boss with deafening peals of adoration.

Quite a brilliant move if this is true. Some people disagree with this version of events. Even for an insider like Jang Jin Sung, it's difficult to have a clear view into what happened.
posted by honestcoyote at 12:18 AM on February 24, 2015 [4 favorites]

I swear a few years ago on Fark or Reddit someone claimed to have gone to the same international school as him in Sweden. Could be complete BS though.

I saw a post on reddit about this, and there was at least one article about it.
posted by zardoz at 2:42 AM on February 24, 2015

Interesting article, MoonOrb, thanks. The stuff 2/3 down about economic and agricultural reforms is useful:

Increasingly, North Koreans can better their lot by earning more money, as is the case throughout the world. Managers of factories and shops have been given financial incentives to do better. Success means they can pay their workers and themselves more. Kim has pushed for the development of special economic zones in every province of the country, with the aim of setting up internal competition and rewards, so that the fruits of success in one area no longer must be fully returned to the state. It is part of a general effort to kick-start productivity.

In the agricultural sector, Kim has also implemented reforms that have proved surprisingly effective. “He decided to do what his father was deadly afraid of doing,” says Andrei Lankov, the Russian Korea expert. “He allowed farmers to keep part of the harvest. Farmers are not working now as, essentially, slaves on a plantation. Technically, the field is still state property, but as a farming family you can register yourself as a ‘production team.’ And you will be working on the same field for a few years in a row. You keep 30 percent of the harvest for yourself. And this year, according to the first unconfirmed reports, it will be between 40 and 60 percent that will go to the farmers. So they are not slaves anymore, they are sharecroppers.”

There was no dramatic announcement of the change in policy, and few have noticed the turnaround. Chronic malnutrition remains a problem. But in 2013, according to Lankov, for the first time in about 25 years North Korea harvested almost enough food to feed its population.

I pretty much ignored coverage of the Dennis Rodman visit, so the story at the end about the drunken banquet was fun, too.
posted by mediareport at 2:55 AM on February 24, 2015 [2 favorites]

The visible increase in consumer goods like cars, cellphones and colorful fashions, and the emergence of what one scholar calls "a public-consumer culture" as an important constituency for Kim Jong Un, and one he plays to, is also interesting.
posted by mediareport at 3:01 AM on February 24, 2015

Mod note: Minor: edited the html so the linked text wouldn't be the whole post, as some people were having trouble scrolling past it on mobile.
posted by taz (staff) at 4:41 AM on February 24, 2015

He stayed in his private villa and played video games or something

Explains everything.

HuronBob, the UN forces were a front for what?
posted by spitbull at 5:29 AM on February 24, 2015

The stuff about economic reforms was really interesting. It could lead to a slight normalization, putting NK on a path to becoming more like China. But the scarier possibility is that it will follow the pattern of the Soviet NEP: economic liberalization creating a consumer class, the government gets nervous about the consumer class' demands, and the result is a crackdown much more aggressive than anything that came before.

The military is something his father would have left to his generals, but young Kim is a student of strategy and tactics. His interest in such matters is the sort of trait that may have made him an appealing choice for the succession.

This may be the scariest thing in there. Historically, there are few things more dangerous than an armchair general with actual power. Kim II would have counted on his military staff for advice, and military leaders, counterintuitively, tend to be less eager to use military force than civilians. But Kim III may know just enough to be overconfident.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 5:37 AM on February 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

> young Kim is a student of strategy and tactics

So he plays Starcraft?
posted by I-Write-Essays at 5:48 AM on February 24, 2015 [2 favorites]

So he plays Starcraft?

Probably moreso than Civilization.
posted by valkane at 6:09 AM on February 24, 2015 [8 favorites]

One thing I do know is that he's rocking the Korean equivalent of a 90's high top fade. I want to do the Kid and Play dance with him, except I'd probably get shot when he couldn't keep up.
posted by Sphinx at 6:10 AM on February 24, 2015

Thanks for posting this.
I think the article could have been edited down to about 2/3 its size without any loss of substance. Still, it's hard to turn away from such rare and weird material.
posted by peacay at 6:27 AM on February 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

When Dennis Rodman is your lead Kremlinologist, you just know your Cold War tragedies are now being replayed as farce.
posted by jonp72 at 6:52 AM on February 24, 2015 [5 favorites]

Technically, the field is still state property . . . [But] this year . . . between 40 and 60 percent will go to the farmers. So they are not slaves anymore, they are sharecroppers.

So from now on, you shall refer to me as "Mister Boy".
posted by Herodios at 7:28 AM on February 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

(let's ignore the fact that it seems to me to be disrespectful to refer to him by his given name, while not doing so for Barack, Vladimir, Angela, Keqiang, Narendra, Raul, or David)

When you're discussing members of political families with the same surname it's not unusual to use first names or nicknames, e.g. "George, W, Jeb" or "Jack, Bobby, Teddy."
posted by theclaw at 7:48 AM on February 24, 2015 [8 favorites]

Another argument would be "why the hell do we need to show respect for these dudes?"
posted by Riptor at 9:22 AM on February 24, 2015 [6 favorites]

Kid and Play dance

It's the "The Kid N Play Kickstep", jeez
posted by Hoopo at 9:35 AM on February 24, 2015 [2 favorites]

Conversely, why do we want to call him Jong-un instead of Kim?

Well, according to the article, there is literally just one Jong-Un left in NK, but there are millions of Kims.
It was probably a good idea not to try to make his last name unique in NK.
posted by sour cream at 9:48 AM on February 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

Conversely, why do we want to call him Jong-un instead of Kim?

Because in conversational English, we rarely use full names, and when last names are all the same we need to differentiate somehow?
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 9:57 AM on February 24, 2015

Why do you seem to care so much? Is there a real problem of lack of respect for the North Korean dictatorship you're trying to solve?
posted by Carillon at 10:12 AM on February 24, 2015 [4 favorites]

Won't somebody think of the brutal neo-Stalinist dictators?!
posted by Aya Hirano on the Astral Plane at 10:17 AM on February 24, 2015 [4 favorites]

most people seem to not know what part is his surname

MeFi isn't most people, and I'd wager that the number of people round here who know how most Asian names work is significantly higher than the general population.

Again, though, in conversational English it's not that common to use anyone's full name. In formal discourse, it's different, sure. But we're not formal here, and the simplest way in English to differentiate between three people with the same family name is to use their first names. Your point about correctly using the personal name--Jong-il not Jong, e.g.--is well-founded, however.

Asian names are "weird" and so it's okay to fuck around with them however we like?

That's not what's happening here.

Call him whatever you want, I guess. Ying ming or something Chinesey should do just fine.

This is a grossly uncharitable thing to say.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 10:42 AM on February 24, 2015 [7 favorites]

Mod note: Guys, let's cool it in general a little. The point that people outside of a culture sort of casually/thoughtlessly mangle unfamiliar names is a pretty reasonable one and doesn't need to be interrogated as some sort of ideological defense of dictatorship, and it feels like maybe we're at point made and clarified already in any case.
posted by cortex (staff) at 10:44 AM on February 24, 2015 [2 favorites]

Using personal names to distinguish between people with the same family name is pretty common. There's a reason the former Secretary of State and presumptive Democratic nominee is referred to commonly as "Hillary" and the son of one former President and brother of another is referred to as "Jeb." This isn't about misunderstanding family-name-first naming conventions, it's purely about having to quickly distinguish three people from the same family.
posted by Tomorrowful at 10:45 AM on February 24, 2015 [2 favorites]

Somebody did mangle his given name so explanation on that point was totally called for.

But yes, the answer to what the Kim family has in common with the Bush family is... uh, "family."
posted by atoxyl at 11:34 AM on February 24, 2015 [1 favorite]

North Korea is interesting in the same way abandoned factories in Detroit are interesting. I'm fascinated, but at the same time, I feel kinda bad for being fascinated.

A friend of mine went on the package tour of North Korea last year, and I had mixed feelings about it. I don't know how you could go there and not feel terrible for all the millions of people suffering needlessly. At the same time, it's such a unique place, I totally understand the draw.
posted by evil otto at 11:47 AM on February 24, 2015

I like to call Bush 41 'Poppy'--it makes me feel like I'm a Bonesman or something.
posted by box at 2:02 PM on February 24, 2015

cortex's note notwithstanding, I've got to thank qcubed for attempting to clarify how Korean names work, something I was going to do (again).

qcubed is absolutely correct about the structure of names, something that is (from my perspective as an expat in Korea) relatively uncomplicated, but consistently gotten wrong in western media. (I won't even get into the consistent across the board pronunciation in UK media of the letter romanized 'J' as 'Y' for reasons that remain a mystery to me.)

A little more on the subject for those who are interested. Although it can be confusing, as some Koreans, ostensibly for the benefit of westerners, will offer their name in the given-name + family-order customary in many cultures, it is nonetheless true that Korean names (as in other places in Northeast Asia) are family-name + given name.

Korean names are almost always (but not invariably) three syllables. A few percent are only two, and a few percent are four, but more than 90% are three syllables.

Family name comes first. Kim, Lee, and Park make up more than 50% of family names in use, and the total list is around 300 family names. Because of this limited list, Koreans and people familiar with the structure of Korean names don't find much problem figuring out what the family name is, even if the name is presented 'western style'.

Given names are, as I mentioned, almost always 2 syllables (although occasionally one, and rarely three). In most if not all cases, the two syllables that make up the given name are a personal part and a generation part.

For example, my wife's family name is one of the common ones. Her given name is composed of two syllables, 석 (Seok as she romanizes it) and 경(Kyung, which would be romanized according to the current recommendations as Kyeong). She shares 경 as a generational name with her brother and two sisters. So, in effect, she is uniquely identified within her family with a single syllable, 석. But one never uses a single syllable of a two-syllable given name, as qcubed notes, so she is 석경. That said, given names (with or without the relational affixes that one uses (think the '-san' from Japanese culture than people are more familiar with) are used much less, especially outside of close family or friendship relationships, than relationship words that more or less translate to things like 'older brother', 'uncle', 'younger sister', 'teacher' and so on when addressing others.

Leaving aside the vagaries of romanization and pronunciation and using the most common romanizations, then, the three generations of DPRK dictators have been Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and Kim Jong Un. It's relatively clear that Kim is the shared family name. The two shared syllables in the given names between the three ('Jong' and 'Il' are not significant markers, here, confusingly, other than perhaps manifesting a similar intention as might be seen in giving a child his or her grandparent's name as a middle name, as a gesture towards continuity).

Use of names is deeply embedded in the language and cultural standards, which are built on strongly hierarchical notions of respect and propriety. So even calling an acquaintance by their given name in public, without the proper relational/respect affix (-시 for example) can be seen as overly familiar and disrespectful. Referring to the current bastard in power in the DPRK as 'Jong Un' is amusing in its deliberate disrespect, therefore, but not something that would ever been done by most Koreans or Korean media.

Concretely speaking from my own experience, I just generally, when speaking English, refer to public figures using their full names, and that's it, and that's just fine. I refer to the current president (who I loathe, but I refer to to previous presidents, some of whom I didn't in the same way) by her full name, Park Geun Hye, without feeling the need to add 'President' or any other honorific, and in English, that's totally OK. If speaking Korean, the way I chose to refer to her would convey a lot more information about my feelings toward her, and that ability to add nuance through ways of addressing others goes stratospheric in its contextual meaning when you're talking to and about people with whom you have some kind of personal relationship.

It's really not the same as referring to Barack Obama as 'Barack' in western culture, or at least, not as breezily dismissable. In fact, and this was something that I found interesting when I started learning about this stuff back in the 90s (and is starting to fade as Korea becomes more globalized and Koreans start to figure out western culture a bit), many older Koreans would be if not offended as least mildly disgruntled or put off when they were referred to as Mr. Kim in English, for example, even though the speaker would be intending that title (Mr.) as a marker of respect or formality.

So, yeah. That was longer than I'd anticipated, and barely scratched the surface. The standard, at the end of all that, if you care, is to refer to Koreans you have no personal relationship with, when speaking English, with their full (usually three syllable) name unless you intend deliberate disrespect. When it's someone with whom you have some kind of personal relationship, well, then it gets tricky, and different people from different backgrounds and generations will have different preferences. In professional situations, there are a whole constellation of job-position-related titles that one uses in combination with family names when speaking Korean, but we don't really have anything unclumsy in English to do that, so: in most cases a Mr. Kim or a Ms. Lee or whatever will generally suffice.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 3:54 PM on February 24, 2015 [16 favorites]

Apologies for the crazy bracket mismatches, there. Hopefully they won't confuse too much.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 4:05 PM on February 24, 2015

I think the reason why stavrosthewonderchicken's explanation bugs me here is that it's actually quite accurate and manages to verbalize what I was trying to get at, however poorly, earlier, and he's not Korean by birth, yet explaining it better than I did. I guess it's more envy.

Heh. Thanks, qcubed. One of the things I do professionally here in Korea is try to explain Korea and Korean culture to non-Koreans, so don't feel bad: I've had a lot of practice!
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 4:33 PM on February 24, 2015

These rules of interaction are so ingrained on an unconscious level, and built into the language, that no matter how I look at it, my mind flips over to Korean mode when talking about Korea. In that mode, there is pretty much zero context for calling Kim Jong-un anything other than his full name or a bunch of colorful curses. It's also why anything other than the full name looks exceedingly odd, but only the slicing and dicing of the names really causes annoyance.

Through the first episode or two that I listened to of Serial, I did basically a full-body twitch each time Sarah Koenig referred to Hae-Min Lee as simply "Hae". I got used to it eventually and I understand why--Hae seems to be what she preferred to go by among her friends/peers--but it was jarring at first.
posted by kagredon at 5:42 PM on February 25, 2015

« Older All the Jittery Horses   |   Moneyball Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments