Actually, he goes by “Howard.”
But the familiar dumpy figure with the high-fade haircut and the boyish smile assumed a different character outside Pyeongchang’s Olympic Park, saluting gawkers wearing a Mao-style suit under a drab wool coat.
He roamed the streets on Saturday as Kim Jong “Um.” As in, “Um…is that who I think he is?”
‘Every time I show my face, I’m reminding people that North Korea’s here’– Howard
The answer was, of course, no. That was most certainly not North Korea’s worshipped autocrat, national near-deity, Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, and Chairman of the Workers’ Party of Korea Kim Jong-un.
It was just Howard, a rather rotund Australian performer of Chinese descent — and professional Kim Jong-un impersonator.
Howard, a drummer in a Brazilian-Chinese fusion band in Hong Kong, loves the attention he’s drawing each time he resurfaces at the Olympics as his alter-ego.
“Every time I show my face, I’m reminding people that North Korea’s here. And what their interpretation of that is, is up to them,” he said in an interview on Saturday in the sheep-farming mountain city of Daegwallyeong. “Plus, I just want some free food and to party!”
Giggles and raised smartphones trailed him as he walked, waving through a window to diners at a Korean barbecue restaurant. He shook South Korean security guards’ hands, he posed for selfies, he gamely raised his middle fingers to the camera, he morphed his face from cherubic grin to exaggerated expressions of stern authority.
As he passed one business, a group of amused men watching him broke out into a spontaneous, slow chant: “Kim Jong-unnnn! Kim Jong-unnnn!”
“Can I shake your hand?” a Canadian tourist asked, posing for a photo.
“Kimchi!” someone else called out, instructing a Korean friend to smile on cue for a photograph with him.
Mission of ‘satire’
Asked what he hoped to achieve in South Korea, Howard said he was on a mission of “satire.” He also admits there’s a business interest for him — the more publicity he gets, the more gigs he can book. And he flew in specifically for the Olympics period to capitalize on this time to get in front of cameras and maximize his exposure.
His commitment to his craft is questionable. Howard — who withholds his last name for fear of reprisals — speaks no Korean. He’s apparently slow to pick up the language.
“Is it, ‘Anyeong?'” he asked a nearby native South Korean, seeking a reminder for the most basic of Korean greetings.
Howard isn’t overly concerned about threats. He’s simply “taking the piss,” he said. This is political satire meant to mock the North Korean regime, which is known for its brutal political prisons and human-rights violations.
These past five years as a professional impersonator have been lucrative. He said it beats his previous gig in Hong Kong, a shady side business importing iPhones. But there’s nothing illegal about political impersonations.
“It really pays to look like an asshole,” he said.
He recently filmed a Russian electronic dance music video where his Kim character makes love to an atomic bomb.
Reggie Brown, a Chicago-based impersonator who has made a career of imitating U.S. president Barack Obama, said Howard’s stunts can seem “borderline crazy,” but they’ve paid off. When the faux-Bama and the Kim-personator failed to get into the Oscars ceremony in Los Angeles, the publicity still worked out in Howard’s favour.
“We made a lot of headlines in the process, which he ended up parlaying into an incredible three-day booking at the Hong Kong Sevens last year,” Brown said in an email. The Sevens is an international rugby tournament.
In Pyeongchang, though, neither the South Korean organizers nor the North Korean delegation were amused by Howard’s antics over the past two weeks. Security ejected him from the opening ceremony when he showed up acting chummy with a lookalike posing as U.S. President Donald Trump.
Meeting the ‘Army of Beauties’
Last week, at the Korea-versus-Japan women’s hockey game, apparent North Korean minders in fur-trimmed coats pushed him away when he ambled over in character to the North Korea fan zone, waving a Korean “Unification” flag. What followed was a giddy mixture of shock, confusion, and possible disgust from the North’s “Army of Beauties” cheering squad.
Olympic staffers at the Kwandong Hockey Centre temporarily detained Howard in a police office, possibly for his own safety. For his stunt, he claims, he was kicked in the shin by suspected angry North Korean delegates.
At the united Korea vs Japan womens' hockey game, an apparent Kim Jong-un impersonator starts dancing in front of North Korean cheerleaders. Apparent employees of the DPRK push him aside. He's now sitting nearby giving interviews (in English) pic.twitter.com/PeVJYtri5Y
— Vincent Bevins (@Vinncent) February 14, 2018
“I’ve just been watching the game, so what’s the problem? The game’s about to finish, I’m about to miss my game,” he protested in one video as South Korean police formed a ring around him in the hallway.
Howard believes his North Korean audience was delighted by his antics. Some may have been giggling.
“I just showed up and waved a flag like everyone else,” he said outside the Olympic Plaza on Saturday. “If they don’t like my face, there’s nothing I can do about that. I was born this way.”
The hockey game was a chance for him to meet the North Korean cheerleaders. It was Valentine’s Day, Howard said, and he was impressed by their “natural beauty.”
“I was hoping to pick a few of them up, back to my hotel room.”
Highly presumptuous about his personal powers of attraction? Probably. But Howard claimed his personal Tinder profile has a weaker success rate than an account he created in his full Kim get-up. He lamented that online matches have requested that he stay in character during dates.
“It’s like, man, you’ve got some dark s**t going on in your life,” he said.
More with Kim Jong “Um” near the Olympic Plaza pic.twitter.com/vQRtZvQveA
— Matt Kwong (@matt_kwong) February 17, 2018