What's Kim Jong Un's last name? Mike Pompeo is learning the hard way

Mike Pompeo (left) is greeted by senior North Korean official Kim Yong Chol and Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong on his arrival in Pyongyang, North Korea, on May 9, 2018.
Mike Pompeo (left) is greeted by senior North Korean official Kim Yong Chol and Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong on his arrival in Pyongyang, North Korea, on May 9, 2018.PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG (NYTIMES) - When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo briefly spoke with reporters on Tuesday (May 8) before a trip to North Korea, he answered questions about President Donald Trump's planned summit meeting with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, with diplomatic platitudes.

But his comments, made aboard a flight to Japan, stirred controversy for another reason: He committed a faux pas by saying that the United States was beginning "to put some outlines around the substance of the agenda for the summit between the President and Chairman Un".

Pompeo's mistake - confusing part of Kim's given name for his family name - prompted a withering backlash on Twitter.

"Somebody really needs to have a word with Secretary of State Pompeo before he meets anybody in North Korea," one user wrote.

"He just referred to Kim Jong Un as 'Chairman Un'. That's like, I dunno, calling Winston Churchill 'Prime Minister Spencer'."

It was not the first linguistic gaffe by an American official in the Trump era.

Before a meeting between Trump and President Xi Jinping of China in Germany last year, for example, a White House statement referred to Xi as the leader of the Republic of China - the formal name for Taiwan, which China considers part of its territory.

Another called Shinzo Abe, the Prime Minister of Japan, the country's "president".

Pompeo is new to the State Department, but his mistake was surprising in part because he is a former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, and someone who has dealt extensively with North Korea.

Some observers said on social media that the slip-up - which came on the same day that Kim was visiting China - was an insult that showed a lack of US preparation for the planned Trump-Kim summit meeting.

"The Kimness of the Kim regime seems pretty well established," John Delury, an expert on China and the Koreas at Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea's capital, said with a laugh in a telephone interview.

He raised the possibility that the mistake could have been because of a State Department transcription error.

Still, Delury added, it was easy to see how an outsider could become confused about a North Korean name.

Unlike South Koreans, North Koreans typically do not hyphenate their given names in English translations, he said. The South Korean President's name is spelled Moon Jae-in, for example, whereas North Koreans typically write "Kim Jong Un" - three distinct names, without a hyphen.

Complicating things further for foreign diplomats, Kim has several titles, including supreme commander of the military and chairman of the State Affairs Commission of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

Delury also said that it can be linguistically confusing for Asians when Americans transition quickly to calling them by their given names - an informality that can often be seen as disrespectful in an East Asian context.

Pompeo, who previously made a secret trip to North Korea at Trump's request, is one of few Americans to have met Kim. Another is former NBA star Dennis Rodman, who has repeatedly visited the North and first met Kim, a long-time basketball fan, in 2013.

In an April statement to the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Pompeo referred to Kim only once - by his full name. He also used Kim's full name several times during his first interview as secretary of state.