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

Share

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?

Sanctions

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE: SThree: Real Staffing Group is seeking Traine...

Year 6 Teacher (interventions)

£120 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: We have an exciting opportunity...

PMLD Teacher

Competitive: Randstad Education Manchester: SEN Teacher urgently required for ...

Real Estate Solicitor 2+PQE - City

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: CITY - HIGH VALUE REAL ESTATE / RESID...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A couple calculates their costs with the help of some paperwork  

It’s the dream of escape that makes couples keep their finances secret from each other

John Walsh
Theresa May  

It's not hard to imagine Prime Minister Theresa May standing on the steps of Downing Street

Jane Merrick
Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Why do we like making lists?

Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

Paris Fashion Week

Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
10 best children's nightwear

10 best children's nightwear

Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

Manchester City vs Roma

Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

Trouble on the Tyne

Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?