Minisode 2, North Korea: Memes, China, and Nuclear War
This episode is about the Supreme(ly Memeable) Leader: Kim Jong-un!
The young Kim, current leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), or North Korea, succeeded his father Kim Jong-il, and grandfather, Kim Il-Sung, the founder of the DPRK. Right now, North Korea is in the news in the U.S. again for conducted a failed missile test, and generally asserting its power in the region. Although Kim is often portrayed as insane (remember Sen. John McCain’s “crazy fat kid” remark?) by some in the U.S., viewing them as crazy is not quite the right approach either.
But why do DPRK leaders and citizens seem to hate the U.S.? Although the DPRK may be ruled by dangerous, corrupt elites who only care about their own power and wealth, the history of the highly contested Korean peninsula -- which was fought over by China, Japan, Russia, the USSR, and the U.S. at different points -- shows that the DPRK’s paranoia about outside powers actually makes a lot of sense. In particular, the brutal history of the Korean War (1950-1953) is a pressing, painful memory for the Koreas: about 3 million civilians were killed total, including about 20 percent of the North Korean population overall. The DPRK’s recent aggressive posturing may also be in reaction the ways that the US has dealt with other leaders it deemed “crazy” -- like Gaddafi and Hussein.
But back to the memes! Although China and North Korea are allies, and there is substantial trade and tourism between the two nation-states, this hasn’t stopped Chinese netizens from making snide memes about Kim Jong-un. The Chinese leadership, however, isn’t terribly happy that its citizens are insulting the leader of an allied state. Many of these memes use a nickname that makes fun of Kim’s body: “Fatty Kim the Third” (in Chinese, 金三胖). This nickname has been censored by the Chinese government, and blocked by Baidu, China’s most popular search engine. According to Redditors, Chinese folks on the internet have been calling him “Xin Pang” (in Chinese, 鑫胖) to circumvent the internet censors! The character (Xin) is composed of three (Jin), the Chinese translation of Kim’s surname.
Playing with different characters is a kind of wordplay which written Chinese lends itself well to because of the plethora of characters available for substitution. In Chinese, a tonal language, it is also particularly easy to make homophonic puns. One of the most well-known uses of this is most likely the “Grass Mud Horse” meme, which was a way of protesting and making fun of internet censorship in China popularized in 2009.
So what do these memes looks like? We’ve pulled out some of our favorites and our guesses at their many meanings for you below!
“You’re not even as good as a pig.”
Kim Jong-un dressed up like a pig, with the caption, “You’re not even as good as a pig.” Is this a reference Zhu Bajie in Journey to the West, who is a bit of a lush, but also a hero? Is the caption supposed to be Kim’s words to the audience, or a caption about Kim himself?
“It’s lonely when you are invincible.”
Kim Jong-un dressed up as a conquering Roman warrior: “It’s lonely when you are invincible.” Is this a reference to the tendency for Kim Jong-un’s political rivals to be killed, like Kim Jong-nam, Kim Jong-un’s half brother? This phrase is also actually a lyric from a song in the popular film The Mermaid, by director Stephen Chow, but also sounds a lot like Kim Jong-Il’s song in Team America, where Kim Jong-il sings about his terrible loneliness.
Little Apple: Kim Jong-un style!
This also another that takes the song "Little Apple" -- a really, really, really (no, seriously, REALLY!) popular song in China a few years ago -- and has Kim Jong-un’s face superimposed in various situations that portray him as totally incapable and hapless.
“Your Name: Now We Can’t Say It”
This meme uses a movie poster from Your Name (2017) -- the highest grossing anime in the world, and the highest grossing Japanese movie ever in China -- slapping Kim Jong-un’s head over one of the character’s, and added a subtitle, “Your Name: Now We Can’t Say It."