[FORUM]Learning to love the bombFriends in the United States ask me if I fear living 35 miles from North Korea. “Aren’t you scared?” one e-mailer writes.
“Who isn’t?” I reply, anxiety building as I consider Kim Jong-il’s stubby little finger on the button. But a good way to deal with atomic tensions, I go on, is to chummy up to denial by embracing black humor.
A colleague at this newspaper, John Hoog, gave me the idea. After a week of reading and editing stories about the North’s threats to yank the tarp off the ol’ nuclear boiler, John announced, “The bad news: North Korea supposedly has a missile that can strike either Alaska or Hawaii. The good news: Pyeongyang has no idea which target it will hit.”
A few nights later, I met up with some students of mine from Sogang University at a local beer hall. There I brought up black humor, explaining that it was mentioning something dreadful in a lighthearted way. Black humor, I said, was simply finding relief from the frightening. An illustration: “North Korea vows to blow up the world? Fine, but let me get my cable bill straightened out first.”
I retold John’s missile gag and said good news-bad news jokes were at the heart of black humor. I gave the students another example:
“The bad news: North Korea has a very short fuse. The good news: They can’t find any matches.”
As we drank on into the night, I offered up another black humor subcategory: The how-many-does-it-take crack:
“How many North Koreans does it take to pack a warhead? Three. Two to set the wiring and one to stick in an extra pair of dress socks.”
By now lightbulbs were clicking on in many clever young brains. The students felt stressed about the North setting up radiocative lemonade stands around the globe. They, too, were looking for respite from pesky thoughts of vaporization. Finally, one student tendered this suggestion:
“The bad news: North Koreans are checking out enriched uranium. The good news: They say it has passed the taste test.”
“You’ve got it,” I said, raising my glass in a toast.
Another student waved his hand. “How many North Koreans does it take to move fuel rods? Four. One to do the lifting and three to sit on the back of the truck and supervise.”
We were rolling now. Indeed, the bar was turning pitch-dark with drollery:
“How many North Koreans does it take to fly a fighter jet? Two. One to hold the controls and one to give a ticket to the ride attendant.”
“Listen to this,” cried a student who could barely contain himself. “When the war begins, the United States will end things quickly by parachuting in mankind’s most powerful weapon of mass destruction.”
And what is that? we wondered.
by Toby Smith
The writer is a deputy editor of the JoongAng Daily.
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