Kimpersonator

Kimpersonator

CHAMPAIGN — He's got the suit. The haircut. The scowl. And the strut.

While not a dead-ringer for North Korea's "dear leader," Minyong Kim prompts lots of double-takes at the University of Illinois.

The UI senior from South Korea has parlayed his resemblance to Kim Jong-un into a part-time hobby, part-time acting career. And he must be approaching a record for most "selfied" man on campus.

"I would say, at least 200 to 300 times per day, usually like 40 to 50 times per hour," he said.

A 10-minute stroll Wednesday through the College of Business campus in his North Korean-style black suit proved his point. He was stopped for a half-dozen photo ops — and got lots of other smiles and sidelong glances.

"He really looks like him," said history Professor Poshek Fu, who stopped to greet Kim near the UI Library. "You are amazing!"

Kim has become a campus celebrity of sorts, with students posting Kim spottings on Facebook and Twitter. A big spread in USA Today's college edition last week garnered more attention, including an upcoming interview with WGN television in early November.

He's the life of the party when he goes to the bars, was a hit at his first UI volleyball game last week, and can't walk down the street in his suit without turning lots of heads.

How did this get started? At a Halloween party, of course. In South Korea.

For years he's been told he looks like Kim Jong-un, and started impersonating the isolationist country's leader when he took power in 2011. Then, in 2014, when Minyong Kim was teaching English at a school in Korea, he dressed up like the real Kim for the students' Halloween party. He bought a suit from China, got the right haircut, and was a smash. Afterwards, he hit the streets of Seoul to party, and a star was born.

Thousands of people took pictures with him, he went viral on Korean social media, and interview requests followed.

"After that night, every article is about me," he said. "Who the hell is that guy?" His fame led to appearances on Korean television, movies and standup comedy specials, as well as several commercials. The most famous was for a Korean website called eNuri, in which he lip-synched "All By Myself" opposite UI alumnus Reggie Brown portraying Barack Obama.

His favorite, though, was a commercial for an air purifier where he was the main character, developing new weapons to kill germs in the air. "It was really fun," he said.

Most of the reaction on campus has been positive, though one student group working toward freedom for North Korea has criticized him for making light of the repressive regime. And Kim says not all Americans recognize his impersonation.

"That's the shocking thing," he said. "Kim Jong-un is one of the most famous guys in the world, same as Obama."

UI senior Rani Desai recognized him immediately, stopping him for a photo at the Business Instructional Facility.

"I think it's funny. I also think it's really brave. It's kind of taking a serious subject and just making it kind of satirical," she said.

A few people have been taken in. Kim has had success pretending to be Kim Jong-un's relative, in charge of the country's chemical industry.

"They ask, how is it possible to be in the states? I say I have double citizenship. They say, why do you come to United States? I say I want to put capitalism in North Korea, to change our economy like China did," he said. "They say, why did you choose Champaign? I say, Kim Jong-un is a fan of Chicago Bulls, but he thought Chicago was too dangerous a place so I came here."

"People believed that," he said.

Kim, 25, enrolled at the UI in 2009 but left after a semester to return home and complete his country's compulsory military service. He spent 25 months in the South Korean Air Forces, then decided to take a gap year to work and help his working-class family pay for the UI's international tuition rates. He taught English, math, history and SAT prep.

He returned to the UI in spring 2013 but studied abroad in China, which was cheaper for him. He worked again and returned to the UI full-time this fall. He's taken heavy course loads each semester, and lots of online courses through Parkland College in between, to finish his degree quickly and cut costs.

He's scheduled to graduate in December with a management degree and a concentration in international business.

He has ambitious plans, post-graduation. He plans to start his own education business, then diversify over time. Someday he'd liked to establish a free school for high school or junior high students — somewhere they can study politics, military science, maybe the humanities or the arts. Most private schools in Korea are "really expensive" and focus on science, math and English, he said.

"For that, I need money," he said.

Kim said his parents are proud of his initiative. But they're worried about his impersonations. Relations between North and South Korea "are not going well," he said, "so my parents are kind of worrying I can be assassinated or kidnapped."

He's banking that the North Korean leader's upbringing in Switzerland has made him "more generous about these things" than his father or grandfather — although Kim Jong-un recently ordered that no one else could copy his hairstyle. Oops.

The UI student is careful not to get into politics, though he makes clear he does not share the real Kim's political views. In his impersonation, he mostly waves and smiles or makes faces, and doesn't say much — not like an impersonator from Hong Kong who actually visited the North Korean ambassador pretending to be Kim Jong-un.

"That's kind of really dangerous," Minyong Kim said.

Then there was that hacking of Sony's movie "The Interview," in which two spies plotted to assassinate the North Korean leader. Kim thinks the movie went too far, and says the main actor "didn't look like Kim Jong-un at all." Now, if there was an "Interview II," he'd be more than happy to take the role.

In fact, his one big wish before he leaves the states: to do an American commercial. Preferably for Coke or McDonald's.

"I'm a crazy fan of Coke," he said.

But he's not choosy. He'd be happy with a local commercial. The name Jimmy John's has come up.

Will he continue his impersonations long term?

Maybe, but "actually my girlfriend really abhors this," because of his safety — and that haircut.

"Not only hates it, but abhors," he said.

3 things to know about Minyong Kim

— Mark Cuban is his idol. Kim grew up a huge Chicago Bulls fan — like the real Kim Jong-un — in the hey day of Michael Jordan, and wants to own a professional basketball team someday.

— About those commercials he wants to do? Kim estimates he's downed three bottles of Coke a day for the last 20 years. And McDonald's — Korea's are superior, he says — was his go-to quick lunch when he was a teacher in Seoul.

— His mom was initially happy about his impersonations, because "her dream was that I be an actor. When I was really young, I had a kind of talent."

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mgd wrote on October 15, 2015 at 1:10 pm

 

Kimpersonator

I love this. He just cheers me up. I enjoy his clever comments. I love people who make wonderful jokes in a language that was not their first; Edgar Bergen, etc. Every time I read about him I enjoy it as much as I did the first time.

When I was at U of I the notorious person on campus was the extremely well-endowed "Campus Cutie," as my (local) dad called her. He always kept an eye out for her.

I missed streaking. My parents and their friends would walk over to campus with lawn chairs....

When I was there we had many and very serious demonstrations. Not too much kooky stuff, alas.

Minyong Kim's poor girlfriend. I love "not only hates it, but abhors."

Hilarious. More stories would be enjoyed!

MARY GATES DEROSIER