[OUTLOOK]Humor Fails When Discussing the North

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[OUTLOOK]Humor Fails When Discussing the North

Sometimes when I read the latest punditry about North Korea, an irreverent thought strikes me: Where is the humor that should be associated with the self-proclaimed "workers' paradise"?

Perhaps laughing at a country that has more artillery aimed in my direction than Ulsan has smokestacks could be seen as an especially perverted form of gallows humor, but humor can often make points that dry dissertations cannot. A 1996 U.S. cartoon showed a North Korean submarine perched on rocks jutting out of the ocean. A voice from inside the sub was screaming, "Dive! Dive!" and the caption was "The Communist Threat in the 1990s."

But most U.S. cartoons that have a North Korean connection are actually aimed at U.S. politicians. One recent cartoon showed Messrs. Bush, Cheney and Powell sipping tea with Kim Jong-il. They were imploring him to "do something roguish" to justify the U.S. missile program.

The essence of a good political cartoon is caricature -- the carrying of physical characteristics or political positions to an extreme. Some cartoonists sacrifice humor to political passion - Herblock, a staple of the Washington Post, is far more pedantic than humorous. A good cartoonist will make his subject laugh and writhe in pain at the same time. That was, for the most part, simply not allowed in postwar South Korea, when the administration's censors were as humorless as any North Korean commissar is today. A tradition of political satire had no chance to develop.

And so little is known outside North Korea about daily life or the political environment there that it is difficult to put a political comment in a context that is humorous and also understandable to readers. To add to the problems, the North is so prickly that any humor at all directed at Pyongyang would risk a disproportionate reaction. After all, this is a government that passed up a meeting of global leaders in New York because its delegate was insulted by airport security guards in Germany. While concerns about the North's reaction might elicit a response of "So what?" the current political environment in Seoul is also quite touchy - more on that later.

A Korean friend of mine who spent a long time in the North suggested another reason why South Koreans' sense of humor fails when the subject is North Korea. In a casual conversation among a group of friends, he mentioned the frequent problems he encountered with communications in the North, and someone jokingly suggested carrier pigeons as a backup. "That wouldn't work," another person commented. "They would be too heavy to fly with their Kim Il Sung buttons." After the laughter died down, my friend turned serious. "You know," he said, "there's something a little painful about that joke. I wonder, if history were a bit different, if we wouldn't be just like them."

His comment triggered some thoughts about how little is known about North Korean society. Because of the lack of access, there is a widespread belief in the South that North Koreans are "just like us." Even Koreans who have spent time there are not completely disabused of that notion, despite the insights they have gained about the country. So poking fun at North Korea cuts too close to the bone - it is too much like poking fun at all Koreans. Traces of this attitude also show up in efforts by Seoul to "explain" the North to other governments. And consider the pained commentary here about some of the silly situations the North gets into, such as the junior Kim's recent run-in with Japanese immigration authorities. In the aftermath of that affair, many columnists here rued the damage to North Korea's image, as if the North's problems somehow reflected badly on the republic.

But President Kim may need all the humor he can muster in trying to deal with a man who styles himself "The Sun of the 21st Century." The North Korean news agency had this to say Wednesday about the dear leader's recent visit to Russia: "Mysterious natural phenomena took place in Hasan, Novosibirsk, Omsk and other places he went. The rain, which had lasted for a week or ten days, stopped all of a sudden and the sun began shining. On seeing these phenomena, Russians praised him as a legendary great man capable of controlling nature."

Good luck, Mr. President.


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The writer is a deputy editor of the JoongAng Ilbo English Edition.

by John Hoog

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