Nobody Else In North Korea Can Be Named “Jong Un”

If you live in North Korea, and if you do you’re not likely to be reading this blog post, don’t even think of naming your child  Jong-Un:

SEOUL, South Korea — There is plenty that is off-limits to North Koreans. Televisions that receive anything other than government broadcasts. Traveling outside their hometowns without official permission. And Bibles.

Add the name Jong-un to the list.

The given name of North Korea’s young and capricious leader, Kim Jong-un, now appears to be reserved only for him — carrying on a tradition started by his grandfather, the founder of one of the world’s most brutal police states. If that does not seem otherworldly enough, consider this: those North Koreans unlucky enough to have had the name when the young Mr. Kim came to power in 2011 have had to give up them up.

Such is the well-honed cult of personality in North Korea, where the leader is something of a godlike figure and where critics of Mr. Kim can find themselves in the nation’s notorious gulags. For a time, early in Mr. Kim’s rule, outside analysts and foreign diplomats held out hope that he might be more modern and open than his father and grandfather, the country’s first two leaders.

But Mr. Kim, 31, has proved to be no soft touch: He had his uncle — and longtime mentor — executed by firing squad when, it appears, he began accruing too much power. And he has thumbed his nose not only at the United States and South Korea, the country’s longtime nemeses, but also at his Chinese benefactors who have pleaded for less provocative behavior following nuclear weapon and missile tests.

Keeping a name sacrosanct adds to the other outsize shows of respect for the Kim dynasty. Homes and offices must be adorned with portraits of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il, Mr. Kim’s grandfather and father. Statues of the two men are landmarks in all major cities, and North Koreans wear lapel pins bearing their images. The country celebrates their birthdays as national holidays.

It is unclear just how many people had to change their name to comply with the new rules, but in South Korea, Jong-un is a common name for both men and women.

South Korean officials have long suspected that a new naming convention was in force once Mr. Kim was publicly introduced as the expected heir to his father in 2010, given the family’s history of hoarding names. But as with so much in North Korea, with its tight control on information, it was difficult to confirm.

Then, on Tuesday, the South Korean national broadcaster KBS reported that it now had what it called an internal North Korean government document, dated Jan. 5, 2011, in which officials of the governing Workers’ Party and of internal security agencies were instructed to ensure that the decree against other Jong-uns was enforced.

On some level, this actually seems counter-intuitive. If you want to create a cult of personality, wouldn’t you want to encourage people to name their children after the man who is often referred to as the “Great Successor” to both his father and his Grandfather, who despite being dead for the past twenty years, is still considered the “Eternal President of the Republic”? Perhaps its a cultural thing, or simple vanity, or maybe just another of the many indications of just how, well, crazy the Kim family can be at times.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Pinky says:

    In order to remain distinctive, he’s also demanding that people stay in shape and get good haircuts.

  2. KM says:

    If you want to create a cult of personality, wouldn’t you want to encourage people to name their children after the man

    I guess it can go both ways in terms of cultural respect. In many European cultures, you’d never find a Jesus as a given first name (considered sacrilegious) but that’s not a universality for Christianity. I guess it depends on if you are trying for awesomely untouchable divinity or achievable inspirational goalpost…. Kim clearly thinks he’s case one.

  3. Pinky says:

    It could have been worse; he could have outlawed the name “Kim”.

  4. Just 'nutha' ig'rant cracker says:

    @Pinky: And, inadvertently, you have stumbled onto the core of the problem and the logic behind the rule. “Kim” is the most common family name in Korea–at something nearing 50% of the total IIRC. The need to control who can have the name is logical for a somewhat (???) paranoid state–if anyone can name their kid “Kim Jong-un,” then anyone can conceivably become that Kim Jong-un with a well placed lead pellet and the cooperation of allies in the government. If there’s only one now…