The power of a laugh
Has North Korea inadvertently given us a major lesson in how to best deal with it? What first seemed to be just another asymmetric North Korean strike at the West now appears to be backfiring in a major way. At the same time, Pyongyang may have exposed the widest chink in the North Korean armor.
As former U.S. Ambassador to Korea Christopher Hill recently noted in a public speech, the North Koreans accept the world hating them - but they cannot tolerate being ridiculed. It did not surprise him that North Korea may have tried to hack Sony Corporation of America. They had the means and the motivation to do so. Nonetheless, in spite of limited distribution and North Korean threats, “The Interview” earned more than $1 million at the U.S. box office on Christmas Day and is being briskly downloaded.
While North Korea applauded the hacking, it denied responsibility, as does the United States for a reciprocal hacking of the limited North Korean Internet network. But even if we conclude that Pyongyang was actually not behind the hack, the nation’s reaction to a sophomoric satirical film is worth noting.
No doubt the Pyongyang leadership is anxious about the certainty of the film eventually appearing in North Korea via smuggled DVDs and USB sticks. The movie’s content is sacrilegious. The film ultimately centers on the assassination of Kim Jong-un.
Entertainment that focuses on the assassination of a current head of state is in poor taste for sure. But the panicked reaction from a small nation dependent on propaganda levels approaching national brainwashing made me take note. Hundreds of thousands of North Koreans have starved to death due to their leaders’ crude and dogmatic economic mismanagement. In a normal situation, citizens would peacefully (or violently) overthrow such a regime. But in North Korea, the government successfully operates on fear and intimidation.
The handful of surviving Communist governments have become unwitting self-parodies of their origins. No longer revolutionary, North Korea and the few other Communist nations have become reactionary in keeping elite classes in power. In fact, it has been widely understood, if not broadly acknowledged by even the Western media, that today’s Communist governments have evolved into second- and third-generation fascist states. The possible holdout may be North Korea in terms of its economic mismanagement, but other aspects of the system resemble more of a Mafioso or fascist state than a genuine, revolutionary government.
Meanwhile, Hitler’s Big Lie is in full operation with Communist states’ populations denying the fundamental realities of their political systems, and in the case of North Korea, cowering in mortal fear of informers even among family members.
But as in the parable of the Emperor’s new clothes, it can take a rather innocent observation to turn a powerful leader into a laughing stock. Today’s innocent statement is, of course, a silly movie. But for today’s realities to transform into the parable’s conclusion, it will take more than a single satire.
The open question is how badly do surrounding nations really wish the demise of the North Korean regime? Though Pyongyang may be the government we all love to hate, the North Korean state in its present form serves geopolitical purposes of the other members of the six-party talks. Even the South Koreans, as much as they pine for reunification, mostly dread the humongous costs of rebuilding the North. The Chinese and the Japanese worry about a stronger unified Korea. The Russians and Chinese worry about a pro-Western nation on their borders. And ultimately the Americans may have trouble justifying the costs of maintaining a forward projection of geopolitical power in the Far East without the North Korean threat.
But should the West ever really wish to go after the Pyongyang regime, there may need to be more digital media parodies directed at the leadership while maintaining a respect for the common North Koreans. That would hurt the regime more than economic sanctions and even military threats.
Imagine if filmmakers made more “The Interview”-type satires that poked fun at obvious North Korean targets with the local populace depicted rolling their eyes in private. Such lampoons would eventually migrate into North Korea. Through comedy, the government could discover it rests on feet of clay as the populace learns to laugh at them.
During World War II, German filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will” initially unnerved the allies. The documentary was a masterpiece of propaganda in its concept and execution. However, this brilliant film lost much of its punch when Britain’s Charles A. Ridley made a short film, “Lambeth Walk - Nazi Style,” which edited footage of Hitler and German soldiers from the film to appear they were marching and dancing to the song “The Lambeth Walk.” While the lampoon enraged the Nazi leadership, it transformed “The Triumph of the Will” into an object of ridicule rather than an instrument of intimidation.
In other words, a healthy laugh is stronger than a menacing growl when enough people are willing to stand and recognize bullies for what they are. Given that the closest relative to comedy is tragedy, there would be more than ample material in North Korea for good comedy writers to work.
Eventually, when the world is truly ready for a unified Korea, we may discover that laughter is the secret weapon that Pyongyang fears the most.
The author is a long-term resident of Korea and author of two books on doing business, including “Doing Business in Korea: An Expanded Guide.”
by Tom Coyner