Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A brief sidetrack into speculative Kim Jong-il

Little Jurka (Jurij Irsenovič Kim) with his lovely Soviet parents, Il-sung and Jong-suk. His Shirley Temple smile presaged a movie career. The picture is not dated; I can't believe how beautiful they are, it doesn't seem right. In the shot below they look more North Korean and not so pretty; note Jong-il's remarkable ears:

Photos pillaged from yesterday's Daily Mail.

Korean names are basically Chinese names--each one has a version in Chinese characters which is effectively the real name, since it is only by knowing it that you can distinguish the name from its homonyms and understand its meaning. The first syllable is the surname or family name, the second and third syllables the given or personal name. Thus, Kim Il-sung is Jin Ri-cheng/金日成, or Gold (the family name) Sun Succeed.

Koreans are traditionally not supposed to marry people with whom they share a surname--it is regarded as sort of incestuous, even though they may be from different clans and completely unrelated. But Kim Il-sung ignored this taboo in his first marriage, to Kim Jong-suk (金正淑/Jin Zheng-shu, or Gold Upright Good). In fact his second wife, after Jong-suk died in 1949, at 31 years old (now look back at her picture and tell me you don't care), was a Kim too.

Another custom of Chinese and Koreans is that of the so-called generation name, where one of the two syllables, most often the first, is given to all the paternal grandsons, or all the paternal granddaughters, of a single grandfather. Kim Il-sung followed this custom with his sons, but in a sort of odd way: he gave them all as the second syllable of their given names his own first syllable, "Il" meaning "sun": Jong-il, Yong-il, Kyong-il, and Pyong-il. And the oldest son also had a name element from his mother, "Jong" meaning "upright", Gold Upright Sun.

This is fairly weird, though it'd be hard to argue that it is actually important in any way. But it's not all. When it came time to name his sons, Kim Jong-il passed his mother's generation name directly to them--Jong-nam, Jong-chol, and Jong-un--as if to assert that they--and his own mother!--were all his younger brothers. Now it's really weird.

What is this promiscuous projection of the horizontal axis of siblinghood into the vertical axis of parentage? Is it by these means in part that the Kim family has sublimated itself into this odd kind of immortality? I don't have the slightest idea. All I can say is I really have been wondering, ever since the advent of the former heir apparent, now apparent heir, Kim Jong-un, whether he and his father had the same generation name; so I finally checked it out, and they do, and more, and so now it's out there.

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