Is there a nation in the world that the Internet laughs at more than North Korea?
We create gag Twitter accounts. We reblog awkward photographs. We struggle to hold back giggles as we write deadpan accounts of ridiculous North Korean news reports. And then there's Team America: World Police, Margaret Cho on 30 Rock, and so on and so forth. With Kim Jong-un making wild new threats against the U.S., we're experiencing one of our periodic spikes in gags about the Hermit Kingdom.
We should probably feel guilty for all the light-heartedness, but schoolmarm-ing ourselves doesn't tend to feed hungry mouths or aid defections. A better use of time is to think about the idea of a laughable dystopia, an irrelevant dystopia, a dystopia made all the more dystopian because it doesn't know how to laugh.
"The regime says ridiculous things all the time. You know, claiming Kim Jong-il made 11 holes-in-one in his first game of golf and so on," Adam Johnson, author of the North Korean-set novel The Orphan Master's Son, told me. "Those things are funny, and they are to be mocked. And they don't seem to be in on their own joke, which invites us even more."
Indeed, even the regime's justifications for its own existence are laughable. There hasn't been a serious existential threat to North Korea since the 1950s. All of the threats that the regime manufactures for its citizens are antiques: Yankee invasions, Japanese rapes, South Korean sneak attacks... and that's about it. At least Orwell's Oceania got to cycle between Eurasia and Eastasia every once in a while.
North Korea's natural resources aren't worth fighting for. No world power cares much about freeing its citizens. It has some small degree of positional significance, but mainly insofar as China wants it to exist as a buffer between the mainland and South Korea, which has American troops at its disposal. Even South Korea barely wants reunification; actually taking in its wayward sibling would destroy its economy. And so the North Korean nightmare goes on and on and on, barely modifying its horrors.
Jokes about the Kim regime can be a step in the right direction, when deployed properly. "I've shared jokes about the Kim family with friends who escaped from North Korea," said Sokeel Park, a Seoul-based strategist for Liberty in North Korea. "I've heard that North Koreans inside the country are also increasingly telling such jokes about their leaders to trusted friends, and that's a great development which shows how the country is gradually changing on the inside."
But once you're outside the DPRK's borders, jokes are drained of much of their poison.
"The vast majority of jokes in the media relating to North Korea are not by North Koreans in North Korea," said Adrian Hong, a North Korea expert who was once jailed in China while trying to help North Korean refugees and who now is the managing director of Pegasus Strategies. "People don't have a big bandwidth for news of the world. When your bandwidth for North Korea is taken up by jokes about the leader and his funny hats and him pointing at things, most people won't necessarily have the same ability to retain information on the fact that a million-plus people starved to death in the 1990s or that half a million or more are in concentration camps now."
And yet, when was the last time you heard a joke about Belarus, Turkmenistan, or any of today's other modern-day dystopias? Perhaps our jokes are an indirect way of singling out the uniquely awful horrors of the DPRK.
"I think humor about North Korea can sometimes play a useful role in bringing attention to the issue," Park pointed out. "For instance I'd probably rather have Stephen Colbert make snarky jokes about the regime leadership than not talk about North Korea at all."
Of course, the vast majority of the jokes people have made about the DPRK have been aimed at its departed Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il. And here's where things get very complicated. After all, it's not as though making fun of murderous dictators can't be useful in toppling them, of course.
"I mean, Charlie Chaplin poked fun at Hitler and it was important when he did it," said Hong. "But the world knew what Hitler was about. The world knew how bad the regime was, and people understood that implicitly and then made jokes about it. But with North Korea, people still are not fully cognizant of how bad things are and how much massive human suffering exists in that place."
But here's a thought: What if the guffaws flung at Kim Jong-il were a kind of time-bomb? What if pop culture's fixation on his antics in life have helped us look at the society he made after his death?
Johnson, for example, noted a shift in discourse after Kim died in December of 2011, when he was putting the finishing touches on his novel. "I had been writing a book on North Korea for six years. When I would tell people that, I would get the strangest responses," he recalled. But "when I talked to people after Kim Jong-il died, instead of saying, 'What are you thinking, writing a book about North Korea?' they all had questions for me. 'Were people really crying at his funeral?' I was assaulted by genuinely interested parties."
"We had seen Saddam Hussein die, Moammar Gaddafi die -- not dissimilar figures, in some respects," he said. "And yet, when those two died, the palace doors were thrown open. People went through the secret files and wandered through the torture chambers. It de-mystified those guys. But when Kim Jong-il died, there was no cause of death, no certainty about how he died or when he died. I didn't see an autopsy report. It only made you wonder even more [about] what was going on."
And yet, here's the fundamental problem: even if pop culture did stop joking about North Korea and treat it with more gravity, what good would it do? How could it beat back what exists there? People living in the territory of North Korea have endured more than 100 years of uninterrupted oppression and tragedy. Their hardship stretches from the Japanese annexation in 1910 and Japan's wartime enslavement of Korean men and women, through the Korean War and its murder of millions, and on to the shocking stability of the Kim regime throughout more than six decades of brutality. The result is a world more terrible than anything any dystopian novelist could ever have concocted.
"Humor about North Korea is always going to happen, and most of it doesn't have much of an effect either way," said Park. "At the end of the day, if you're concerned with helping the North Korean people, you have bigger battles to fight than worrying about jokes on the internet."
When North Korea says it's testing nukes that can reach American shores, the average American doesn't particularly believe it or care. And get ready for gags about how Kim Jong-un was caught smoking in a hospital. We live in a world where our worst fever dream is real, but can't make it to the front page. Everyone laughs. Maybe we should feel guilty for laughing, but what else can we do?
Abraham Riesman is a journalist and documentary filmmaker based in New York City. You can see more of his work at abrahamriesman.com.