The Korea vs. Japan women's hockey match at the Pyeonchang Olympic Games on Wednesday was set to be a historic match. Both the socialist DPRK (“North Korea”) and U.S.-allied Republic of Korea (“South Korea”) had contributed players to a historic, united team, and would face off against arch-rival Japan.
They threw the team together rather quickly, and reportedly barely had time to practice, but Korea chose to put political pageantry ahead of its chances of winning. The match with Japan promised to be especially symbolic not only because Japan is their bigger, richer neighbor to the East, but because that country played a crucial role in the history of Korea's separation. Some historians believe the Korean War really started during Japan's brutal occupation of the peninsula in the early 20th century, which created a division between guerrillas and collaborators, many of whom would face each other on the battlefield during the hottest years of the war that waged from 1950 to 1953. But officially, the Korean War is not even over. Maybe this match could be a small step to finally ending it?
And of course, the now-famous North Korean cheerleaders would be there. They were. It was remarkably easy to find and photograph them, smiling and waving at me as they lined up in the hallways, preparing to enter the rink. When they did, since the place was far from full, I just took a (presumably very expensive) seat right next to them. On the ground just between them and me sat a line of four or five young men wearing matching fur coats; their attitude and ability to go wherever they wanted seemed to indicate they worked for some government, probably the DPRK.
Japan scored twice right away. Cruelly, whoever is in charge of these things then played Pennywise’s “Bro Hymn” each time. But then the Koreans scored — their first goal as a united women's hockey squad — and the crowd lost it. South Koreans wearing unity pins and waving the unity flag sang along in unison with the cheers the well-choreographed Northern squad was leading.
Not much later, a commotion just in front of the cheerleaders caught my eye. For a second or two, I truly believed that DPRK leader Kim Jong-un was at the game and had decided to greet his country's fans. A guy standing there, waving a flag, really looked like him. But the fur coat crew quickly disabused me of this notion. They ran anxiously to the man, surrounded him, and dragged him to the side. The man protested that he had a ticket, and they seemed to respond, fine, OK, then get to a seat, and sit down.
At the united Korea vs Japan womens' hockey game, an apparent Kim Jong-un impersonator starts dancing in front of North Korean cheerleaders. Apparent employees of the DPRK push him aside. He's now sitting nearby giving interviews (in English) pic.twitter.com/PeVJYtri5Y— Vincent Bevins (@Vinncent) February 14, 2018
He did, and began giving interviews, in fluent English, to a small but growing crowd of media and amateur photographers on the front row. This really did obstruct the view of the game for quite a few (South Korean) fans, and he was then moved into the hallway, where a large group of police seemed to be asking for him to come to a back room.
The South Korean police clearly did not know how to deal with the man, who said his name was Howard and did not understand Korean. They kept hesitating and calling someone else on their walkie-talkies. Howard, however, was self-assured. Howard had clearly practiced what he would say in front of the cameras and phones now pointed at him, and delivered a series of zingers. Only trembling very slightly, he said that they can't just take him away if he didn't do anything wrong, and they should tell the media why he was being detained.
“I just showed up with with my flag and my face,” Howard said. “If you don't like my face there's nothing you can do about it, I was born this way.”
Eventually, he did accompany them into a back room, and left on his own, to a small amount of cheers and giggles, after the match. With a good deal of hesitation, I posted some crappy vertical Blackberry videos to Twitter. When these kinds of things go viral, you don't actually get any benefit except that your phone stops working for a day or two. No new followers, or kudos for good journalism, or anything. You just get slightly annoyed, as everyone uses whatever they saw for their own ideological purposes and your phone keeps constant getting alerts about it just because you happened to be standing there. But I did it anyways, and that is exactly what happened.
But as it turns out, this is not the story of North Korean socialism, or South Korean police, or maybe even the Olympics. This is the story of Howard.
And not because Howard is a hero. In reality, most of the crowd experienced Howard as a brief disruption of the game. Despite international media attempts to read something or other into the faces of the cheerleaders themselves — “A .gif!” editors around the world must have screamed. “Anything for a North Korean reaction .gif!” That could have powered our online economy for weeks — what I mostly observed was them trying to see around Howard and watch the hockey. Other young South Koreans I spoke with the next day, after much of this country saw him on TV, said he was “very rude,” since he insulted their guests. I'm not even sure he was treated much differently than someone would be treated jumping in front of the cheerleaders at most sporting events around the world.
No, this story is about Howard because his story is our story, and it's often not a pretty story. After all this exploded online, his former roommate reached out to me — not the other way around! — and shared a bit of his history. Howard has roots in both Hong Kong and Australia, the former roommate said, and currently resides in Hong Kong. He works as an impersonator, sometimes of Kim Jong-un. But that work doesn’t always pay the bills, apparently, so Howard has a side business selling phones. The roommate passed me a link showing he had been in trouble with the law for it.
On Thursday night, I texted with Howard. He confirmed everything but asked that I not to include a link to that phone story, since it included his full name. He said he has dual citizenship in Australia and Hong Kong, and also lived in the U.K. and Brazil — all of this explains his unique accent, which was the subject of some debate online. Yep, he said, he is the same Howard that appeared at the opening ceremony of the Pyeonchang Games with “Donald Trump,” as well as at the 2016 games in Brazil. I asked him if we could share a link to his Facebook page — not the other way around! — and he said yes.
Howard is not from North Korea. He is not a man experiencing the very real suffering that their government inflicts on its people. He does not know that reality, nor do we. Howard is an average guy, precariously employed in the liberal market economy, whose side-hustle almost got him landed in jail. He saw an opportunity to promote himself on the internet, and took it. Who among us, especially in media, cannot relate to this? Maybe his little dance would derail Korea's historic opportunity to feel unabashedly united, or maybe it would help, somehow. He didn’t know. He did it anyways. Would you, if it might mean you could stop smuggling phones? Of course you would. Did I tweet the thing out immediately, despite my reservations, and then obsessively watch as my shitty videos got a million views in 12 hours? Of course I did.
Howard seized an opportunity to try to go viral, perhaps by doing something brave, or perhaps insulting, or perhaps risky — but who cares which, the important thing is it was probably going to generate attention — because it could help make him richer, or more famous. Again, who among us has never been there? Who is the president of the United States?
So this is the story of Howard, because we live in Howard's world. You are Howard. I am Howard. In Howard, we are all united.