Jia Yongtang doesn’t have much luck with the ladies. He thinks it’s because of all the weight he’s put on. More likely, it’s because his online dating picture shows him as the spitting image of Kim Jong Un.
The North Korean leader might be one of the most reviled people in the world, but Jia has reason to be happy about the notoriety that comes with Pyongyang’s endless missile launches and occasional nuclear tests. For the past four years, Jia has been making a living, of sorts, trading on his uncanny resemblance to the young dictator.
“Some people are excited, some people are scared,” said Jia — wearing sunglasses and a navy-blue Mao suit with a plastic version of the red Kim badge that all North Koreans must wear over their hearts — on the street in Taiyuan, the capital of coal-producing Shanxi province. “I get a lot of requests for selfies.”
Two young women stopped and gasped when they saw “Kim” getting into a black Mercedes-Benz SUV with a reporter. They stopped and whispered to each other, trying to figure out if it really was Kim. But no requests for selfies.
As the world’s attention turns to Beijing to see if it will punish Kim for his ongoing nuclear defiance, the case of Jia is something of a metaphor for the complicated relations between China and North Korea.
China’s view of North Korea is very different from that of the United States. Sure, Beijing doesn’t appreciate Kim’s efforts to develop deliverable nuclear weapons, and there are signs of a slight chill on the border between the two countries, but China is not trying to bring about regime change, or much change at all.
Furthermore, there’s a kind of nostalgia here, among older people in particular, for the simpler communist life — the “good old days” before cutthroat capitalism arrived in China.
Jia, who’s about 5 foot 3, was working as a security guard in 2012 outside the Bird’s Nest, one of the stadiums built for the Beijing Olympics, when someone commented on his resemblance to Kim, who had become the third-generation leader of North Korea a few months before.
He decided to take advantage of the likeness, but becoming a more obvious Kim Jong Un took some work. For starters, Jia weighed only 130 pounds when he decided to morph into the North Korean leader, but with some concerted fried-rice consumption, he’s managed to get to 190 pounds (about 10 pounds lighter than the Internet estimates the real Kim weighs).
He grew out his hair and now has a Kim coif so perfect that some people think it’s a wig.
Inside the daily life in North Korea
Inside the daily life in North Korea
People reading a newspaper at the metro station
Thoughts of the leaders on the tram. They have about a dozen of these on every tram, all with different thoughts
Young people training for a big upcoming festival
People at the Pyongyang's annual marathon
Many stars on one of the trolleys in Pyongyang
An intimidating poster in a primary school in North Korea.
Solar panels installed on a street lamp.
A poster on the window next to one of the venues we visited in Pyongyang
Kids playing football next to the Arch of Triumph. After a while tourists were allowed to join, so some of us did
Class in an educational center in Pyongyang (where people over 17 years old can attend any classes they choose after school, for free)
People waving at me during the Pyongyang marathon
People having a great time dancing at a public park
A metro driver in a metro station in Pyongyang
Fireworks to mark the birthday of the Eternal President Kim Il Sung on our last night in Pyongyang
My wonderful tour guide at a public park
One of the parks in Pyongyang
A person rowing some boats for the day at a river in Pyongyang
The National War Museum
Public park in Pyongyang
He appears in character at random events and even has a brief scene at the end of a new film, called “Drunk Youth,” with the Chinese Barack Obama. Ending a meeting, the pair waves and makes peace signs at the camera.
Yes, Jia has seen The Interview, the Sony Pictures film about the assassination of Kim that led to the entertainment company being hacked by North Korea. He was not impressed with Randall Park, the Korean American who played the dictator.
It would be safe to say that Jia is not on the brink of breaking into the big time. His regular gigs involve appearing — often alongside his self-appointed mentor, a Mao Zedong impersonator named Xiong Ding Jian — at minor events and standing around just looking like Kim.
Sometimes Jia breaks into a half-intelligible speech in Korean that he’s memorized, wishing people a happy new year and saying: “I love China.”
When a reporter gently pointed out that he was saying “hello” in the South Korean way, not the version most commonly used in North Korea, Jia got defensive. “All Koreans speak the same language,” he said. Unspoken: “Don’t mess with my art.”
Like the real Kim, this doppelganger is afraid the Americans are after him. “I’m afraid the Americans will come here to kill me. That they’ll think I’m really Kim Jong Un and will come here to kill me,” he said, a little nervously.
But that doesn’t stop him from getting out and about in China.
On a recent day, he appeared as a judge at a talent show in a dance school on the 19th floor of a high-rise building here in Taiyuan, a second-tier city in China’s industrial heartland. As Taiyuan’s answer to Simon Cowell put the kids through their paces, Jia sat there in his dark suit and darker glasses, watching and occasionally clapping.
The kids had no idea who he was supposed to be. When one young girl’s mother said “the leader of North Korea,” the girl’s face remained blank.
Jia and Xiong came to Taiyuan at the invitation of the local cultural heritage department and appeared at events, with “Mao” praising the city’s development while “Kim” stood alongside him.
Over lunch with Jia and Xiong afterward, some locals praised the two strongmen.
“We are very honored to have them here. We have a lot of respect for North Korea and Kim Jong Un because he is the leader of a socialist country,” said one of the pair’s lunchmates, a retired military educator who uttered words that wouldn’t have been out of place in his classroom.
A businessman chimed in: “Kim Jong Un’s father had a really good friendship with China, so we like the son. We have a lot of respect for him.”
Asked further about China’s relationship with North Korea, the men demurred, saying they were just “common people” who didn’t know much about politics and suggesting that the subject was “too sensitive” to be discussed.
Asked what Mao would have made of Kim, Xiong took the diplomatic route. “I don’t know, that’s for the older generation to answer,” he said. “If his father hadn’t died, we would be closer than we are now. At that time, North Korea respected China. As Mao said, North Korea should listen to its big brother.”
“I care about the heart, not the politics, of being an actor,” Jia added.
But in matters of the heart, he’s not doing so well. Xiong and the others tease Jia for being unmarried at 34, calling him “an old man in an empty nest.”
But he rejects the suggestion that his Kim routine is damaging his chances. “I think it probably helps,” he said, adding that his profile picture entices women to start conversations with him. “Some girls think I look like a strong leader.”
Congcong Zhang contributed to this report.
© The Washington PostReuse content