Kim Jong Un impersonator is Games’ most popular man


Martin Rogers

 |  USA TODAY Sports

SEOUL – Kim Jong Um talks with the intense defiance and conviction you’d expect from a military dictator.

“If they mess with me, they’d better kill me,” he barks. “Because, you know, if it was attempted assassination they’ll make me even bigger. North Korea, they don’t make death threats, they just kill you. So, if it comes, it comes.”

Hang on, isn’t Kim a North Korean, the Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army, no less? Why would they want to kill him?

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Oh wait, this isn’t Kim Jong Un, it’s Kim Jong “Um,” since 2013 the world’s preeminent Kim Jong Un impersonator and the same Kim Jong Un lookalike who infiltrated the Opening Ceremony of these Pyeongchang Olympics. Kim Jong Um even had North Korea’s “army of beauties” cheer squad believing for a second that Kim Jong Un had turned up at an Olympic hockey game.

The real Kim Jong Un probably doesn’t think too highly of Kim Jong Um, or Howard X, the Australian-Hong Kongese musician and producer who turned his extraordinary physical similarities to Kim into a career.

“It’s been busy,” he says. “It is a lot of work, being Kim. I think I work harder than he does, especially here at the Olympics. A lot of people to meet and everyone wants to know about what I’m doing.”

Kim Jong Um is hungry and his hamburger is waiting, but our interview hasn’t finished yet. We are meeting in a hotel room near Seoul’s main train station because trying to conduct a chat in a public space guarantees interruption every few seconds. It is a constant stream of photographs, selfies, autographs and handshakes.

Kim Jong Um is friendly and has a sense of humor that is utterly hilarious, sharing acerbic takes on life. Howard details how he created a Tinder profile for himself and another for Kim, and the despot’s dating image fared better than his own. Some women, he says, just dig it.

He’s a fun guy, but he’s still wearing that famous black tunic and the unmistakable haircut and he looks just like the dude with a nuclear button of disputed size. I let him eat the hamburger, and we carry on afterwards.

Kim Jong Um’s appearance at the women’s hockey game between “one Korea” and Japan was a priceless piece of absurd entertainment. He found a flag with the unified Korea symbol and waved it while dancing in front of the cheer squad from the North. Plain clothes security shoved him away and he was quizzed by police before being released. He was then warmly welcomed at a party at France House, asked to leave the German Olympic party venue and would have gone to USA House if it hadn’t closed early.

More pranks are on the way, perhaps with his counterpart, Dennis Alan, who is a Donald Trump lookalike.

“I am not going to tell them, I will just do it,” he says. “But it hasn’t finished yet. So keep your eyes out for some famous presidents around the place at the Pyeongchang Olympics.”

Kim Jong Um is in his late 30s and speaks with an Australian accent form his time in Melbourne, but there is a lot more work in Hong Kong so he’s based himself there.

No question, he is the biggest non-competing star of the Pyeongchang Winter Olmypics and his bookings, which reward him in “either the four-figure of five-figure range.” look certain to spike upwards after this.

But there is feeling behind what he does, too. Aside from the jocularity there are two things, a seriousness about his craft and a reason to try to mock Kim that goes beyond money.

He went to famed Hong Kong clothier Sam’s Tailor for his handcrafted suit, which set him back $600. He gets his hair cut by one barber only, and instead of trying to chase Kim’s changing look, he sticks with the one he is most known for. He wears glasses like Kim in South Korea because that look is what the audience is more familiar with seeing. The American public sees less of Kim’s image in the media, so he tends not to wear specs when on paying gigs in the U.S. He sports lipstick and makeup for extra authenticity and a mask and bandana in public when he doesn’t want to be spotted.

“I don’t try to shy away from the political side of it,” he says. “The very nature of what I do is political. It is a bit more difficult for an Obama impersonator because he is a legitimate, respected figure.

“I am trying to create dialogue and highlight some of the things that Kim is doing, while making fun with it and creating some satire.”

Kim Jong Um is ready for a walk and who am I to argue? He leaves the hotel and strides the few blocks to the train station. Before long, it is like Usain Bolt is in the building and there is perhaps no Winter Olympian who could elicit such a reaction. He stops by an information booth and asks for a train ticket to Pyongyang in North Korea.

“Definitely not possible,” he is told.

Fathers push their kids forward to take a look and to get a handshake. Dozens of people pull out their phones. “It’s the mad scientist,” one woman squeals. Two visiting Americans and a pair of Norwegians are beside themselves with delight.

“He’s just like him,” one says.

After a few minutes, the bandana comes out and it is time for the act to end. During his walk through the station Howard has received no hostility – if South Korea learned to live with the threat of Kim Jong Un’s temperament long ago, they can live with a parody of his existence too.

For now though, the mask is back in place, and Kim Jong Um is just Howard again, with more Olympic pranks to plan.


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