HONG KONG — When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo briefly spoke with reporters on Tuesday ahead of a trip to North Korea, he answered questions about President 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 pax 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.”
Mr. Pompeo’s mistake — confusing part of Mr. Kim’s first 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. Ahead of a meeting between Mr. Trump and President Xi Jinping of China in Germany last year, for example, a White House statement referred to Mr. 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.”
Mr. 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 slipup — which came on the same day that Mr. Kim was visiting China — was an insult that showed a lack of United States 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, Mr. 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 first 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” as three distinct names, without a hyphen.
Complicating things further for foreign diplomats, Mr. 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.
Mr. Delury also said that it can be linguistically confusing for Asians when Americans transition quickly to calling them by their first names — an informality that can often be seen as disrespectful in an East Asian context.
“That’s where I am on un-gate,” he said.