The revolutionary leader Kim Jong-un is dissatisfied with the uniqueness of his DNA, which reflects the uniqueness of his family, the exclusive monopolists of authority in North Korea for three generations. Now, like a rare vintage, he also wants to be unique by appellation. No human in North Korea will be allowed to bear his name, for fear of diffusing its glory. Parents who crave it for newborn children will be spurned by the national registrar. Adults who already have it must now get it erased from their birth certificates.
That’s rather like rewriting history but the really amazing thing about this story, which shook the world with laughter over the weekend, is that it is old news. It took three years for it to reach the media of the free world, since the order reserving Kim’s name was passed in 2011, when he was nominated to succeed his father Kim Jong-il — whose name was also reserved in his time, and his father’s before him. The practice was apparently common in the pre-modern Far East. However, it’s rather odd for a family of revolutionary leaders to perpetuate it. But the slowness with which news of the vanishing Kim Jong-uns percolated out of North Korea provides a new index of unfreedom.
How many people in North Korea are named Kim Jong-un? Quantity has implications for quality. In India, if all men named Ram Singh were forced to change their names, they would gang up and bring down the government. In contrast, even if every Sabyasachi Batabyal were renamed by force, India would shrug and move on. The name is just too rare to care about. But perhaps it doesn’t make a difference in North Korea, where the power of numbers seems puny in the face of the power of Number One.