The Western view of North Korea

North Korea has one of the strangest relationships with the West in modern political times.  In an average year we will fluctuate between mass hysteria over the country’s active nuclear weapons programme to mocking Kim Jong-un’s latest sky high haircut. It’s a corrupt and oppressive dictatorship, with countless human rights abuses levelled against it, but also the subject of countless jokes, satires and internet memes.

Humour is undoubtedly one of the best ways of fighting off tyranny and oppression. As we have seen with the recent terrorist attacks carried out by ISIS across the world, tyrants thrive on fear. They crave power, authority and, most importantly, respect. Mockery and satire is one of the most peaceful yet antagonistic ways of denying them this privilege, and fighting against the overwhelming sense of despair which at times pervades current affairs in the twenty first century.

Although our comedy can sometimes cross over the line between harmless and overly antagonistic – as was the case with Seth Rogan’s political satire The Interview – I think it is quite right that we should laugh at Kim Jon-un. What he craves more than anything is our fear and our recognition; every time North Korea starts to slip off the international agenda, an event such as the recent supposed hydrogen bomb test always appears to generate a storm of media coverage before it slips back off the radar. Kim Jong-un often appears like a spoilt child craving attention. So this is exactly what he deserves; our disdain, our mockery, and our ridicule but not our fear.

But what do the people of North Korea deserve? It’s difficult to really establish how bad the situation in the country is, due to the stifling of any foreign media coverage that strays beyond the capital and the areas of the country the leaders want us to see. On December 17th, however, a UN Human Rights resolution stated that the country was responsible for severe violations of the rights of women and children, using political prison camps and imposing all pervasive and severe restrictions on freedom of thought, conscience, religion and belief. While the majority of our jokes are levelled against Kim Jong-un and not at the North Korean people, there is a thin line between mocking the oppressor and mocking the oppressed.

Laughter is a good response to the threat posed by North Korea, but it shouldn’t be our only response. We shouldn’t let our jokes of Kim Jon-un’s incompetence, technological backwardness and love of cake lull us in to a false sense of security, or make us immune to the suffering of the millions of Koreans who live under his regime. The latest claims of a successful H-bomb detonation struck a nerve across the world; although experts are sure the claim is exaggerated and falsified, North Korea are undeniably increasing their ambitions and we are no closer to finding a solution to the problem. Economic sanctions are clearly not working; the country has an exceptionally low dependence on imports and is propped up well by its main ally China. As the latest H-bomb test has shown, North Korea is not controlled by its ally; it can act independently safe in the knowledge that China will never withdraw support for fear of the stream of refugees who would come knocking if North Korea’s economy were to completely collapse.

All jokes aside, it really is about time we made attempts to freeze the country’s nuclear weapons, programme, hold the country to account for its human rights abuses and help to improve the quality of life for the people of North Korea. Our jokes and satire may diminish the authority Kim Jon-un so craves, but it does not diminish his threat, and it certainly does not help the people of North Korea.

Jessica Murray 


Image courtesy of KCNA/Reuters 

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