In early November, North Korea sent a diplomatic note to the authorities in Beijing, expressing indignation that the Chinese public has taken to referring to supreme leader Kim Jong-un by a disrespectful nickname – Fatty Kim the Third.
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Pyongyang demanded that any mention of Mr. Kim by Chinese officials, media or in any public forum be accompanied by an appropriate title or honorific, such as Chairman Kim, President Kim or General Kim. If his unadorned name or any nicknames were used, there would be serious consequences.
While the North Korean government did not specify precisely what the consequences would be, the note became the talk of Chinese social media. It appears that many of China’s 720 million internet users are furious at being bossed around by North Korea.
Overnight, “Fatty Kim the Third” became a forbidden phrase in the Chinese blogosphere. The country’s biggest search engine, Baidu, and the popular Sina Wiebo microblogging site have banned the three Chinese characters that make up Mr. Kim’s nickname.
This convinced local netizens that their already limited freedoms were being further circumscribed by the North Korean dictator. They were not amused, and quickly set about getting revenge.
Pyongyang underestimated the creativity of a people who have been writing ideograms for 4,000 years
The authorities in Pyongyang obviously underestimated the creativity of a people who have been writing ideograms for 4,000 years. Instantly, Kim Jong-un acquired scores of new nicknames, some derived from variant spellings or combinations of numbers and characters, some based on homonyms, and others mixing Chinese and English.
Of course, every new nickname referred to Mr. Kim’s weight. Each reference attracted thousands of insulting comments about the jumbo-sized leader of China’s closest neighbor. The language got so wild and crazy, one would hardly believe that China limits freedom of speech.
Chinese are fond of using characters to give names to foreign leaders. Eight years ago, when they moved into the White House, President Barack Obama (whose name transliterates as “Mysterious Wishing Horse”) and his wife Michelle were especially popular. Some of the nicknames that stuck were crude or even insulting, but nobody heard the United States government complain.
Mr. Kim may have achieved a more lasting notoriety.