North Korea: A nuclear tragedy which plays out as comedy

As South Park's creators noted, there is something so funny about this country's rulers it can mask the monstrosity of their regime. We might die laughing

Inappropriate Mirth Syndrome is a pernicious condition. If you happen to be immune to it, please accept that there is nothing remotely funny about being driven from the funeral of a much-loved grandmother by an inexplicable giggling fit. On the face of it, nor is there anything wildly amusing about the news that North Korea has conducted another underground test of a nuclear device, in pursuance of its stated ambition to develop the capacity to strike the American mainland. Yet somehow, shaming as it is, the instinct is to laugh.

With the work of crazy tyrants, a time-honoured formula holds that “comedy = tragedy + time”. It took the passage of centuries before Caligula became a punchline, while the cable channel sitcom Heil Honey I’m Home!, in which the Führer moves in next door to a Jewish family, lasted just the one episode in 1990, and would never be commissioned today.

The exception to this rule is North Korea. There is something so inherently funny about its rulers (the South Park team chose Kim Jong-il as lead jester in Team America: World Police) that it somehow masks the monstrosity of this tragically benighted country. How is anyone supposed to take these crazies seriously, you wonder, and nothing short of a mushroom cloud over Wyoming seems capable of providing the answer.

Ha ha boom

The ruling family’s knack of mingling the unwittingly hilarious with the attemptedly petrifying, hugely to the detriment of the latter, was on display this week. Shortly before Kim Jong-un gave the order to detonate the nuke, a statue of his late father, Kim Jong-il, was unveiled in the capital for a second time. In its first manifestation, this handsome bronze featured the Dear Leader in jacket and tie, and a long overcoat. The remodelled version, intended to present him as more avuncular and man of the people-ish, has him in an anorak. Head raised, beatific grin on face, he now resembles Harry Secombe belting out Bread of Heaven on Highway. Meanwhile, his belly has been made even more capacious, as if to taunt from beyond the grave a population beset by hunger.

The perpetual semi-famine has also nimbly side-stepped his successor. The “Young Leader” is a ringer for PSY, the chubby rapper from the other side of the 39th parallel, and it is tempting to imagine him aping almost every other world leader by performing his version of the ultra-viral dance craze. Backed by an army well known for maintaining a lock-step formation, Kim Jong-un’s Pyongyang Style would be something to behold, although it would be unlikely to be uploaded on to YouTube.

If North Korea is the ultimate distant country of which we know little, the same goes for its new supreme leader. We do know that the young fella finds himself in charge of the asylum at 29, coming by the post after his eldest brother lost the inheritance over an ill-judged jaunt, on a false passport, to visit the Tokyo Disneyland. That lent a suitably Mickey Mouse flavour to the succession battles of the Tudor court. We know, from the evidence of his father’s chef, one Kenji Fujimoto, that he smokes Yves St Laurent cigarettes and likes a drop of Johnnie Walker. “He is exactly like his father,” the cook declared by way of underlining his fitness for the top job. “He is a big drinker and never admits defeat.” And isn’t that the combo to soothe frayed nerves about his future oversight of the nuclear codes?


We also know that he was not a bright or industrious student in Switzerland, and that any finishing school he attended there would regard this nuclear proliferation as the height of poor form. It may be that the Chinese government feels the same, and will take a more aggressive line in reining in its troublesome neighbour. Clearly, this is a serious test for Hu Jintao – a new and exceedingly young leader himself at 59, which by traditional gerontocratic standards makes him 15 – as he juggles the need to improve relations with the US with China’s fraternal warmth towards Pyongyang.

As Beijing considers its response, world leaders line up to demand sanctions. If these have to some extent worked with Iran, the two cases are hardly comparable. Where Iran has an economy to devastate, a form of democracy to manipulate, and an entirely rational leadership (discounting Ahmadinejad’s pantomime ravings), North Korea has none of these things. What precisely would you stop giving the country that has nothing? How would worsening the privations of his populace affect the girth and sensibilities of a Young Leader described, by the only witness to give a character reading, as every inch his father’s son?

Meanwhile, as the geopolitical community scratches its head at the conundrum, the Inappropriate Mirth Syndrome kicks in at this vision of an overgrown adolescent – possibly the hostage of internal forces, possibly his own man –  threatening to destabilise a combustible region by playing the most dangerous game known to humanity. I suppose we might eventually die laughing. But it doesn’t feel that way, and that is Pyongyang’s gift to us all... the genius for translating what ought to be terrifying into a zany comedic art form, and so lulling the planet, if not its leaders, into regarding the nuclear brinkmanship as a joke. Maybe there is some method to the madness after all.