Chinese netizens love mocking North Korea's portly dictator. But it masks a deeper disdain.
- By David WertimeDavid Wertime is a senior editor at Foreign Policy, where he manages its China section, Tea Leaf Nation. In 2011, he co-founded Tea Leaf Nation as a private company translating and analyzing Chinese social media, which the FP Group acquired in September 2013. David has since created two new miniseries and launched FP’s Chinese-language service. His culture-bridging work has been profiled in books including The Athena Doctrine and Digital Cosmopolitans and magazines including Psychology Today. David frequently discusses China on television and radio and has testified before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. In his spare time, David is an avid marathon runner, a kitchen volunteer at So Others Might Eat, and an expert mentor at 1776, a Washington, D.C.-based incubator and seed fund. Originally from Jenkintown, Pennsylvania, David is a proud returned Peace Corps volunteer. He holds an English degree from Yale University and a law degree from Harvard University.
It’s North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un as the world has never seen him. In a three-minute clip that has accumulated over 200,000 views after its early July posting on Chinese video site Tudou, a crudely photoshopped Kim dances on the street, on a baseball diamond, and in a cornfield, at various moments accompanied by Barack Obama or Osama bin Laden. At one point, Kim has a fistfight in the mud with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. The video ends with the portly dictator riding a pig into the horizon.
What’s noteworthy about the video is not, as South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo wrote in late July, that North Korean authorities have ostensibly asked Beijing to take the clip down. Since the article merely cites “a source in China” to back that contention, the claim is impossible to verify. And it’s also beside the point: Chinese censors, despite possessing both the power and the proclivity to sink their knives into domestic content contrary to the Chinese Communist Party line, have evinced little interest in extirpating anti-North Korean content from Chinese cyberspace, where Kim is often called jin sanpang, meaning “fatty Kim the third.” In fact, a query for that term on Baidu, China’s largest search engine, calls forth 15.7 million results — proof positive of censors’ indifference.
What the staggering accumulation of anti-North Korean sentiment illustrates, however, is that criticizing North Korea — particularly its portly young leader Kim — is a popular trend on the Chinese web.
Recent history is one factor: Kim’s December 2011 assumption of his throne roughly coincides with the rise of Weibo, a Chinese Twitter-like platform that allows users to remix images, share video, and generally make vicious sport of almost any target. But it’s also because Kim’s regime has delivered multiple provocations that almost seem calculated to elicit online disdain. After the North’s April 2012 failure to launch its much-ballyhooed Kwangmyongsong No. 3 missile, for example, netizens mocked the regime as inept. Later that month, Chinese film director Zhang Zhou famously touched up the official portrait of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un with lipstick and light rouge.
In May 2012, Sino-North Korean relations nosedived after press reports in China and the West stated that North Koreans captured 29 Chinese fishermen who were working in Chinese territorial waters and held them for ransom for over a week before releasing them. That bizarre move prompted Chinese netizens to criticize the North as a “terrorist” regime — but also to lambast their own government for acting as a “vassal state” with aims of “appeasing” their neighbor.
Relations took a further hit in February 2013, after North Korea conducted its third-ever nuclear weapons test. Web users reacted angrily, with even erstwhile half-defenders like state-run Global Times editor Hu Xijin critiquing the North’s “wrong path.” Among the tens of millions of North Korea-related Weibo comments at that time were those lambasting Kim as an “evildoer,” a drug dealer, and the “greatest threat to China’s national security.”
Even now, in the absence of any notable high-level friction, grassroots Chinese contempt for their hermetic neighbor is surprisingly easy to find. On July 20, when Chinese state television’s Weibo account shared images of a smiling Kim watching a soccer match, one commenter quickly asked Kim “whether your citizens can all get as fat as you” when they are “nearly starving.”
But online satire has not obscured manifestations of genuine Chinese concern for the suffering of ordinary North Koreans. In February 2012, the mass arrest of 30 North Korean defectors in China and their reported subsequent repatriation spurred online anger at what many commentators viewed as de facto “murder” by their own government. Zhihu, a Chinese question-and-answer website, contains a lengthy discussion on Chinese treatment of defectors, and the most popular answer condemns a “family in sin” and an “evil rule,” an apparent reference to the dynastic Kim clan.
Criticism of North Korea’s tyranny, even that delivered with a webby, satirical wrapping, is juiced by a tacit understanding that China could easily have taken the same path. After all, the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea was established in 1948, just over a year prior to the People’s Republic of China, and both regimes featured egomaniacal and ruinously ideological Communist strongmen at their respective helms. Chinese are acutely aware that but for the death of Mao’s son Anying during the Korean War in 1950, and the elder Mao’s subsequent failure to anoint a successor who matched his anti-market zeal, modern China could be in far worse shape than the reformed version that exists today. Or as one Weibo user wrote, addressing North Korea, “Your existence is what causes us never to forget what Mao Zedong brought us.” The North’s bad example, he explained, allows Chinese citizens to “get a clear view of history, look at our past, and think on our foolishness.” Perhaps the creator of the latest viral Kim video wants the same thing.