So Kim Jong-un Walks Into a Bar . . .

April 11, 2013 Topic: EthicsMediaSociety Region: North Korea Blog Brand: The Buzz

So Kim Jong-un Walks Into a Bar . . .

At BuzzFeed, Benny Johnson collects some of the Internet’s comedic responses to the recent bluster and threats emanating from North Korea. His bottom line: “The Internet Is Really Not Afraid Of Kim Jong-Un,” as jokesters around the web have laughed off the threats and portrayed the young dictator as a buffoon in a variety of ways.

Back in 2010, professor Robert Kelly asked, in a blog post, “Is It Moral to Find Humor in North Korea’s Bizarreness?” It’s a fair question, and one that remains relevant today. Certainly, the various GIFs and parodies of Kim will seem a whole lot less funny if Pyongyang launches a war next week or next month, and thousands or millions of people are killed. Kelly argues yesterday at length, persuasively in this writer’s mind, that such a scenario is highly unlikely. Yet even if this doesn’t happen, and the situation de-escalates, North Korea will remain an absolute nightmare of a country for anyone unlucky enough to live there.

There is clearly enough that is absurd about the North Korean regime to make it a ripe target for jokes and satire, as best exemplified by the hilarious 2004 movie Team America: World Police. But do such jokes minimize or make light of the human suffering of millions of people living under a brutal dictatorship? Kelly writes in 2010:

I never really know how to answer this question. Among IR and foreign policy types, the DPRK is just as easily a punch-line over drinks after a long conference as it is a topic of that same conference. . . . My sense is that it is within the bounds of ethics to laugh at communist kitsch after the regimes have collapsed or at loopy Chavez-types who aren’t too destructive – yet. But North Korea is probably too far.

In response, one commenter says, “I think it’s healthy and useful to mock unaccountable power, as long as it doesn’t crowd out empathy for its victims.” Satire has always served this useful function—Jon Stewart’s recent takedown of Mohamed Morsi for his treatment of Egyptian comedian Bassem Youssef is a great example.

In the HBO special “Talking Funny,” the comedian Ricky Gervais says (around 41:00 in the video) that he’s frequently asked the question, “Is there anything you shouldn’t joke about?” His answer: “No, there’s nothing you shouldn’t joke about—it depends what the joke is.” That principle also applies here. There’s no essential reason why mocking any of the many bizarre things about Kim or his regime should be off limits. But, as Kelly’s commenter correctly notes, the burden is on those of us who either make or laugh at those jokes to not lose sight of the reality of what the country is—and to make sure that the North Korean people themselves don’t become the punch line.